Vietnam: our war - our peace
This commemorative publication reflects on the wide experience of Australians who served in the Vietnam War. The Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial recognises all Australians who served in Vietnam. The opening of the memorial was an important step in recognition.
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His Excellency Major General Michael Jeffery, AC CVO MC (Retd) Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia
The Vietnam War was the longest and arguably the most divisive conflict in Australia's history. From 1962 until 1973, about 60,000 Australians served in defence of South Vietnam either 'in country' or in a logistical support role, of whom 520 died and almost 2,400 were wounded. A final operation occurred in March-April 1975 with Australian military aircraft involved in an airlift carrying supplies into Saigon and evacuating embassy officials, foreign nationals and some refugees. The last Australian flight out of South Vietnam occurred on Anzac Day, 1975.
In retrospect, the date of that last flight could be seen as fitting. The men and women who served in Vietnam were torch-bearers of the Anzac tradition forged with the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Many had grandfathers who landed at Gallipoli or fathers who were veterans of the Second World War or Korea; some Vietnam veterans had actually served themselves in the Second World War, Korea, Malaya or Borneo. Others had no ancestral link with the Anzacs. Many of these were 'New Australians', as they were called at the time, whose families had migrated from a battered Europe after the Second World War; as well as Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders whose people had been, with some exceptions, denied opportunity to serve their nation in previous wars. Nonetheless, all of these Vietnam servicemen and women quickly embraced and lived up to the full expectation of the Anzac tradition.
The first Australians into Vietnam were the gallant members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) - first in, and almost last out. The RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam established its wonderful service in 1964. In 1965, the first infantry battalion to be deployed (1RAR) saw active service in the province of Bien Hoa. In 1966, the Australian Government substantially increased its Vietnam commitment when the 1st Australian Task Force was given responsibility for securing the province of Phuoc Tuy. It established its operational base at Nui Dat, while the 1st Australian Logistic Support Group established a logistical base - including its magnificently run hospital facility - on the coast at Vung Tau.
Unlike the previous generations of Australian servicemen and women, those who returned from Vietnam did not find acceptance from the wider community readily forthcoming. In the later years in particular, the war became increasingly unpopular at home and many veterans found that it was not worth identifying oneself as a 'Vietnam veteran'. Veterans endured years of what many saw as abandonment by their fellow countrymen and women, that left an indelible mark in the minds of those who had fought so long, hard and honourably.
It is now 44 years since Australian servicemen were first sent to Vietnam, and the 40th anniversary of the most well known Australian battle of the war - Long Tan. On 18 August 1966, 'D' Company 6RAR ran into a much larger enemy force approaching the Australian base at Nui Dat. Into that evening, in heavy rain, the 108 men of 'D' Company held out against repeated enemy attacks until a relief force broke through. Seventeen members of 'D' Company and one from the 1st APC Squadron lost their lives in that desperate battle, and 24 wounded were evacuated. Much publicised then and since, the anniversary of this battle is now appropriately Vietnam Veterans' Day.
This book contains stories of Vietnam veterans and family members. It is not a history of the Vietnam War but rather a selection of personal stories. The writers are drawn from every State and Territory and together, they take the reader on a journey, from war service to post-war living. Some write of their war experiences - from patrolling in Phuoc Tuy to maintaining aircraft at Phan Rang, to serving in warships off shore. Others write of challenges and achievements after the war. Other themes explored include the importance of family, the sharing of history, and the powerful influence of mateship on Australian military ethos.
With these stories, the book illustrates the wartime service and sacrifice of Australians in Vietnam, including civilians such as Maureen Spicer who was a caring nurse. Also illustrated are the post-war challenges faced by veterans and their families, along with the accomplishments of the Vietnam veteran community as a whole.
Vietnam: our war - our peace is a most timely and interesting read.
'God help me, I was only nineteen.' Those words have resonated since the Australian band Redgum released I Was Only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green) in March 1983. Vietnam veterans embraced as an anthem this song about their war, and for other Australians it redefined perceptions of their countrymen and women who had served in Vietnam. Coming a decade after the last Australian troops were pulled out, this song marked an important step towards healing for some veterans and perhaps for reconciliation between those who had fought in the war and those who had fought against it. Emphasising the personal cost of war service, it surged to Number 1 in the charts and helped to propel the campaign, which was already underway, for further acknowledgment and care of Vietnam veterans.
Of the 60,000 Australians who served in the Vietnam War, as part of a much larger US-led force, about 50,000 served 'in country', or on the naval 'gun line'; a further 10,000 served in the logistics and support role carrying personnel, equipment and supplies to and from Vietnam; and a small number served in the airlifts of embassy staff, their families and refugees in March-April 1975. These Australian veterans and their families, along with those of foreign forces now living in this country, make up what might be called our Vietnam veteran community.
There can of course be no universal experience with an event of the magnitude and duration of the Vietnam War. The Government's decision in 1962 to contribute to the defence of South Vietnam was well supported early on, but later anti-conscription and anti-war protests created, in sectors of society, degrees of disapproval ranging up to open hostility towards Vietnam veterans. Even then, infantry battalions and some other units received welcome home parades; members of the regular forces were able to continue serving within a supportive military environment; and there were others who returned to families and communities that were supportive. But for a variety of reasons, many other veterans felt that they did not have the levels of support they needed; many recall landing in Australia before dawn, feeling unwanted, and, sadly, were given an impression that they had not done anything to be proud of.
All veterans undergo a period of readjustment after returning from a conflict. They need to reconnect with family and friends, start looking to the future with more certainty, and deal with the memories. This can be challenging - and for some, wounded physically or psychologically, it has been very difficult. By the late 1970s, there was anecdotal evidence that many Vietnam veterans were finding it hard to readjust and live a 'normal' life. This mirrored the experiences of veterans of other wars - some were able to readjust more readily than others, and some who appeared well early on would later 'hit a wall'. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other health-related issues, became evident in the Vietnam veteran community in the decade after the war, and they have continued to be evident.
Vietnam veterans were able to gain access to certain benefits accorded to other veterans, including war service home loans and pensions. Lobbying by veterans' groups for greater acknowledgement and further support of Vietnam veterans started within a few years. An early victory saw the establishment of the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service in 1981-82, and this has become a key component of the support network for veterans and their families. Over the years, governments have responded in other ways, including health studies of veterans and their children, and bursaries for their children's education. What this generation of veterans achieved in these areas has benefited other veteran groups also.
With veterans of every generation, there is a natural desire to sustain comradeship forged in war, and to support each other in peacetime. Vietnam veterans and their families have formed organisations and associations for these same reasons. They have also stepped up to share responsibility for the interests and care of the wider veteran community - in organisations established by the veterans of earlier wars, or in their own organisations which have evolved to include others, most especially younger veterans.
With the passage of time there has been a shift in the perception and reception of Vietnam veterans by the wider community, in this country and others that participated in the war. Australia's Vietnam veterans received the much-desired Welcome Home Parade in Sydney in 1987, and in 1992 the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial was dedicated on Anzac Parade, Canberra, to honour all who served, suffered and died. Vietnam veterans played the leading roles in both instances. In contrast to the later days of the Vietnam War, they are welcomed and cheered on the important occasions of public remembrance and commemoration in this country, such as Anzac Day.
In 1987, 18 August - the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan in 1966 - was officially recognised as Vietnam Veterans' Day. As the first significant engagement by the 1st Australian Task Force and the single most costly encounter of the war for Australians, the anniversary of this battle was generally accepted to be an appropriate day of remembrance. There were other significant operations, such as the defence of Fire Bases Coral and Balmoral in May 1968, and many smaller actions during the years of relentless patrolling across Phuoc Tuy and Bien Hoa. There were many who served in different roles and areas, in supporting units or in air and sea operations. All of the men and women who served, suffered and died in this war are remembered on Vietnam Veterans' Day.
It is now 40 years since the Battle of Long Tan, and 44 years since the first Australian troops were sent to Vietnam. The 44 stories in this book by Vietnam veterans and their family members are personal reflections, from experiences in Vietnam to post-war struggles and achievements. The photographs that accompany their stories or are interspersed through the book show men and women from all periods of the war, from different units, and in diverse roles and activities. They have one thing in common, a thread that binds still: they, or their families, served in Vietnam.
There are many paths travelled from civilian to serviceman or servicewoman and then to veteran. There are many 'Vietnam stories' that might be told, in this country and in others. Some of the stories within this book are about the war itself; others are about the years of 'peace' that have followed. The personal costs of war are well known, and reflected in these stories; also reflected is the comradeship, achievements, honour and understanding of the Vietnam veteran community.
Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, 1964-65; HQ Australian Army Force Vietnam, 1965; 1 SAS Squadron, 1970
I was Adjutant and Training Officer of the 1st Battalion, Royal New South Wales Regiment (Commando) in Sydney when selected for the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). After briefing at the School of Military Intelligence and a course in tropical warfare instructing at Canungra in April- May 1963, I waited. Finally I was advised of a posting to the AATTV as an Advisor and because of my Special Forces background was allotted to the Combined Studies Division (CSD), a cover for CIA (US Central Intelligence Agency) operations in South Vietnam.
On 14 April 1964 I left Sydney by Qantas Super Constellation with Warrant Officer Jim Husband and Sergeant Jock Stewart. We stopped in Singapore for two days of kitting out and landed at Tan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon on 17 April. There was another week of MAAG (US Military Assistance and Advisory Group) kitting out and briefings, including on my CSD operational role. I was to go to Quang Ngai province, ascertain the situation and submit recommendations.
Quang Ngai in northern South Vietnam was one of the most critical provinces. It was heavily infiltrated by Viet Cong (VC) guerrilla units with substantial VC infrastructure in villages and hamlets. It was divided into ten districts, of which the Government controlled (by day) the six coastal districts and the VC controlled the larger inland districts. From a population of about 660,000 in the province, an estimated 150,000 were VC cadre or supporters.
The Government displayed little interest in the people, with the armed forces and police providing limited security around the provincial capital and portions of the coastal districts. Elsewhere the VC were generally free to do as they pleased. This created the situation where another 200,000 people could be classed as 'fence sitters', not openly taking sides because doing so could be a matter of life or death. In many parts, the VC had resorted to terrorism including assassination to intimidate and coerce the population into providing supplies, taxes and recruits.
In support of the Province Pacification Plan, I devised a CSD Province Plan, aimed at the coastal districts to begin with, to destroy VC infrastructure, consolidate Government control and achieve popular mass support. First priorities were to develop an effective intelligence gathering and reporting centre, form some district-level combat/psywar (psychological warfare)/civic action teams called People's Action Teams (PATs), and raise and train other teams to identify and engage VC cadre. After that, the plan was to step up dispensing of propaganda, establish and offer guidance to district assemblies, and establish a provincial-wide informant system. Finally, the training of village and hamlet officials would be initiated.
A Province Operations and Intelligence Centre was established and in September I was joined by Warrant Officer John Clarke, AATTV. We rented a house in the capital, and hired a housekeeper, a cook and an interpreter. After attempts were made on the house and our vehicles were shot at, with prices on our heads, we hired guards who doubled as drivers and shotguns for our trips throughout the province.
We raised twelve PATs teams, each of about 40 men, in the six coastal districts. They were the most successful initiative. Locally recruited, they were trained and armed to protect themselves and the hamlets in which they lived, becoming a trusted and welcomed presence among the people. We insisted on a code of conduct: always be polite; pay the right price for anything that you want; return what you borrow; offer to pay for anything you lose or damage; do not be overbearing; do not damage or destroy crops; do not molest women; and treat prisoners fairly and firmly. Further, although combat operations were not their main task, by May 1965 the PATs teams had killed some 379 VC and captured 214, with 187 weapons taken; PATs casualties were 32 killed and 118 wounded.
My tour ended in May 1965 but I stayed on to oversee expansion of the PATs program countrywide. Based at the US Embassy in Saigon as special advisor and coordinator of the program, I travelled widely in I, II and IV Corps areas, briefing Province Control Groups. In December, I handed over to a CIA colleague and departed with a feeling of unease about where the program was heading. Although my faith in the concept was unshaken, I was concerned at the eagerness with which the South Vietnamese and Americans grasped the program. It was being thrust on the people without careful picking of the right men or adequate training and positioning for their sensitive role. The seeds of failure for this program were being sewn.
I returned to Vietnam in 1970 commanding 1 SAS Squadron. My role was quite different to that of an AATTV advisor, and the war was noticeably different. In 1964-65 the situation appeared to be on the improve. By 1970, although the 1st Australian Task Force in Phuoc Tuy was holding its own, elsewhere the war was gradually being lost or, at best, going nowhere.
1st Battalion, RAR, 1965-66; Military Attache Staff, Australian Embassy, Saigon, 1967-68; AFV Provost Unit, 1970, and Detachment 1st Division Intelligence Unit, 1970-71
In early 1965, I was in 4RAR on exercise near Townsville when my commanding officer assured me that Australia would not become involved in the 'losing' war in Vietnam. Ten weeks later, I was standing in the long grass at Bien Hoa airbase, in the advanced party of 1RAR, and like everyone else wondering how to put up my hoochie without any trees nearby and no stakes of any kind. We had come by overnight jet flight from a Sydney winter to monsoon season. The humidity was oppressive and we watched dark curtains of rain circling us. Inevitably, a storm hit and our introduction to the climatic conditions of Vietnam was almost complete.
At dusk we 'stood to' wearing our webbing, weapon in hand and watching our assigned sectors, to the puzzlement of our American neighbours who made no concession to being in a war zone: radios were blaring, lights blazing, vehicle doors slamming, conversations shouted, and men casually walked into town looking for entertainment. The Australian position was silent and dark. Within days our patrols dominated the area assigned to us, much to the relief of the US district advisory team in Tan Phu. A few days before, they had watched a squad of Vietcong put to flight a South Vietnamese company outside the village.
First impressions were of the unimaginable power of the US military that made our puny Australian contribution insignificant. Standing on the airbase perimeter we saw more military aviation activity than in all of Australia. Fighters, transports, liaison aircraft and mass formations of helicopters came and went at all hours. A C-124 Globemaster arrived daily with salads from Okinawa, something beyond the comprehension of our catering warrant officer. While waiting for HMAS Sydney to arrive with the rest of our battalion group, we ate in US messes. Unlike the parsimonious Australian rationing system, cooks placed food on the soldier's plate for as long as he stood there. Their only statement was, 'Take as much as you want, but eat all you take!'
Another culture shock was showering, US military fashion. Australians used individual canvas shower buckets but before these arrived on the ship we were sent to an American shower point. Each rifle company entered an enclosure and stripped off together, then on command entered another area around which ran pipes and shower nozzles. Water flow was controlled by an operator who allowed thirty seconds of water to run so that each man could wet himself, then turned it off while we soaped ourselves, then on again for thirty seconds, then off. Too bad if you had not rinsed off all the soap!
Being Australians, we believed we were superior to any other nationality, and first meetings with paratroopers of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade did nothing to change that. We ignored the fact that we wore a variety of uniforms and boots dating back to the Second World War, with much of our equipment of the same era, while every American wore good quality field uniforms and tropical boots better in every way than ours. We blithely overlooked their far greater experience in all aspects of deploying and supplying forces overseas, and stated that they knew little about counter-guerrilla warfare, which we specialised in. This did not please the Americans, who declared that they knew how to defeat guerrillas because they had beaten the Indians. This caused some mirth and the sarcastic Aussie reply was that the Vietcong did not rely on buffalo and horses and it would be a long wait for the winter snows when their camps could be surrounded by the US cavalry!
No one denied the Yanks' bravery and aggressiveness, and there were officers and NCOs who were masters of their profession, leading troops keen to show what they could do. But it also seemed there was only one way to do things - theirs. They believed that air mobility, communications and firepower would achieve victory in a few months, and everyone could go home and get back to preparing for the big league against the USSR and China. As time went on, it seemed to me that an historical wheel had turned full circle; when American colonists had rebelled against English rule, it was the redcoat regiments that plunged into the forests and were harassed by the locals who did not fight according to the rules of warfare; now it was the Americans who sent formations into the jungle after an elusive enemy who did not follow the rules.
Nevertheless, in those early days there was a distinct feeling of being part of a great force that would win the war and bring peace and prosperity to South Vietnam. It's difficult to recall when the glow died but when I served my third tour in 1970-71 numbers of US troops refused to go on operations, some threatened or killed their superiors, and many wore peace symbols and love beads and had anti-Army slogans on their helmet covers.
Civilian medical team (SEATO), 1966-67
I arrived in Saigon at the end of August 1966 to the noise and traffic of war, fatiguing humidity, pungent smells of spices and diesel fumes and a mass of humanity on pushbikes, motorbikes, cyclones and auto-cycloes, cars and donkey-drawn carts. There appeared to be no road rules except the person who tooted the loudest and longest had right of way. It was exciting and somewhat frightening.
I was a nurse in a medical/surgical team from The Alfred Hospital dispatched under the auspices of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). We had six doctors, five nurses and a radiographer, all volunteers. Our anaesthetist was Dr Victor Brand, ex-POW doctor, the psychological pulse of our team who maintained our morale whenever the going got hard. I hoped to make a difference, having been told that the civilian medical situation was appalling. We were sent to Bien Hoa Provincial Hospital, built in 1934. Architecture was French-style with arched colonnades and wooden-shuttered windows to allow airflow through overcrowded wards. There were open drains, and a rubbish dump with a population of large rats. The children's ward, built later, had a compressed earth floor, no electricity and no water supply. Hoses ran off roofs into 44-gallon drums. There was also a prison ward for criminals and Viet Cong, and a paramilitary ward for local militia.
The 'Surgical Suite' built by the US Aid Agency (USAID) consisted of two theatres, a recovery room (RR)/intensive care unit, sterilising room, tiny change room and central triage area - with a colony of rats underneath the entrance ramp. Unfortunately the RR air conditioner had broken down and was 'fixed' by removing it, with rain coming through the gap in the wall, while a blocked sink was 'fixed' by removal of the taps.
The two RR nurses managed patients, dressings, triage, plastering of uncomplicated fractures, and were stretcher-bearers, often walking through ankle-high water after rains. We worked seven days a week, were on call overnight, and had one weekend in three off. We were constantly improvising to meet ever-changing situations. When a bus was mined 30-plus patients would arrive; or on morning rounds we might find patients brought in during the night, often after an amputation in the field with artery forceps still attached beneath dressings. Because of the surgery workload there were no postoperative orders - the doctors operated, the RR nurses did everything else. Two or three patients to a bed was normal - top and tail two patients on the bed, then double-deck with an Army stretcher supported by the iron rails for the third. Beds were very low so a lot of the care was done on our knees.
Many patients were children, projectile vomiting and with worms. Many with hare lips, cleft palates and deformities were given new lives by our plastic surgeons. An orphanage next door had so many orphaned, abandoned, poorly nourished, multiracial babies there was no room for aisles between the cots. The nuns begged for food and money. An eight-year-old orphaned boy became my interpreter on ward rounds. I made enquiries to adopt him, but apparently was not suitable as I was not married. The hospital was extremely under-resourced. We cut up parachutes for dressings, and used gravel-filled bags to suspend legs of patients with fractured femurs. Syringes and needles were recycled and with weekly sharpening lasted five months - not one needle site infection. Drugs were begged, scrounged, 'borrowed' or stolen from American military hospitals and the airbase. Our autoclave, to sterilise instruments and stock, could be described as a large drum on stilts with a kerosene-fired barbeque flaming away underneath. Electricity supply was unreliable, with surgery sometimes by torchlight.
There was no toilet at the hospital for the team which meant whenever we had gastro we had to drive back to our house, incurring the wrath of the military as we broke into road convoys. Our USAID-built house had three storeys, leaking roofs and massive cockroaches practising breast stroke across sodden tile floors. The noise of the war was constant and at night artillery boomed, F-100s screamed on take-off, and when it was quiet everyone became spooked. With 40,000 Americans in Bien Hoa and five female Australian nurses, we needed commonsense, a protective team and a very capable liaison officer (we found out later he was CIA) and still there were some uncomfortable moments. There were also times when I thought I was about to die, if fighting became close.
I was sad to leave, after four months, but very tired. My little interpreter hugged my legs, sobbing, 'Why not you take me goodbye home with you?' I cried on and off all the way to Saigon. I still wonder if he survived. It was an honour to care for and work with the Vietnamese people. Their stoicism, serenity and appreciation were amazing. They challenged my beliefs, and I learnt what being culturally effective meant. Nevertheless, I failed to master riding motorcycles side-saddle, at great speed, holding an open umbrella.
HMAS Hobart, 1967
In the middle of 1965 I was appointed as the first commanding officer of the new guided missile destroyer (DDG) HMAS Hobart. The US-designed and built DDG with its then advanced weapon and propulsion systems presented a technological challenge well beyond the existing equipments in the RAN. That challenge was accepted by the ship's company, with an experienced group of officers and sailors sent to the US for pre-commissioning training, joined by the remainder of the crew for the commissioning of Hobart in Boston Navy Yard on 18 December 1965. Top results were achieved in shakedown exercises off the US West Coast prior to returning to Australia in September 1966. On visiting Hobart the ship's company were given the Freedom of the City.
In those days one had to be posted overseas for at least twelve months before you could officially take your family. A number of Hobart's officers and sailors had been informed they would not be in the US in excess of twelve months, but it was up to twenty months that they were separated from their families. This was not the way to look after experienced and valuable personnel. We had been back a few months, having completed a successful exercise and enjoyed Christmas leave, when word came that Australia was sending a destroyer to Vietnam.
Hobart's departure from Sydney on 7 March 1967 was interesting. It was the day we hoisted the Australian white ensign. Prior to that, Australian ships flew the Royal Navy ensign. Hobart was the first to take the new ensign into a combat area. We had two personnel issues though. Firstly, the media reported that Hobart was being deployed for nine months instead of the six we expected, and it took some time before this was corrected officially. Secondly, there was a delay by the Government to define our conditions of service, which was of concern because in those days special benefits for operational service were limited to tax exemption and naturally this was given a high priority by sailors and their families. After we began operations there was also a mail problem. These may now appear as small issues but when a ship is deployed to an operational area the effect is magnified and it is felt by the families also.
Hobart received a warm welcome at Subic Bay. Although the only 'foreign' in the 65-ship cruiser/destroyer force of the US Seventh Fleet, there was a firm base for integration as we were operating a US-built ship with US equipment, and a number of officers and sailors met friends they had made in the US. Being 'the new kid on the block' was the catalyst for the competitive team spirit which prevailed throughout our deployment. We were confident that Hobart would acquit herself if called upon, and I was very confident in the capability of my ship's company. The team was good and the equipment first class.
Hobart carried out operational tasks south and north of Vietnam's De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) in five separate periods between 31 March and 14 September 1967. The first four were each of about three weeks duration, and the last eight days. The main tasks for destroyers were naval gunfire support of troops south of the DMZ, interdiction of Viet Cong coastal supply lines, and support of aircraft carriers in the Tonkin Gulf. Basically, there was no submarine threat and the enemy air threat was confined to north of the DMZ, where artillery and missile attacks could be expected also.
In the course of the deployment Hobart steamed over 52,000 nautical miles, being underway 78 per cent of days, and was replenished at sea 117 times. The crew was 20 officers and 313 sailors, a large number in a ship of 4500 tons, however there was air conditioning, a luxury not previously experienced in the RAN and which made the crowding acceptable. In operations, Hobart engaged 1050 targets with an expenditure of 9204 rounds of 5-inch ammunition, and received shore fire on ten occasions without damage or casualties. The average hours worked was 90-100 per week - with no penalty rates! I was awake 20-22 hours a day, catnapping for five and ten minutes at a time. It was good to get back to Subic Bay, which wasn't resort-like but was a place for rest and work on the ship.
On 14 September 1967 we turned over duties to HMAS Perth. Having been away from home, in the US or on operations, for most of the period since mid- 1965, it was definitely time to go home. Hobart was awarded the top Fleet Prize, the Gloucester Cup, and a US Navy Unit Commendation in recognition of the effectiveness of the deployment. No ship can achieve a high standard of operational effectiveness without the dedication of each member of the crew. In monthly reports of proceedings I acknowledged that my time in Hobart was the highlight of my career and that I was privileged to command a magnificent ship's company.
1st Australian Reinforcement Unit and 7th Battalion, RAR, 1967
Somehow in my deep sleep I had managed to go home. I was with my wife. We married before my embarkation in case I never returned from Vietnam. I had lost my good mate, Tony Purcell, fellow national serviceman, who went before me and was killed with 6RAR in July 1966. And before I was sent up as a 'reo' to the 1st Australian Reinforcement Unit (before posting to 7RAR) in March 1967, we'd been to see another mate who'd been gut shot, and so the reality was dawning on us. Better to be a war widow than a fiancée! 'You'll be looked after, darlin'.'
I was with her when my mate shakes me awake. 'Wake up. You're on.' My turn at piquet. I am virtually sleep walking to the M60, on set lines, ready to rip the guts out of anybody who trips a flare out there and I hope they do, because I'm sick of this. I just wish I could kill some bastard to make it all worthwhile.
We had been on the Xuan Moc two days earlier, harboured all night in the fetid slime of hastily-buried decaying Viet Cong bodies and I had retched all night. We had choppered in and set up a riverbank ambush for sampans expected up the river to resupply the Cong. A Yank chopper force hit the sampans at dawn and not only stuffed our operation but took us on as enemy.
A rocket went over my head and exploded behind ... and then another. I was near-paralysed with shock and pissed myself rushing towards the M60 where my mate was taking aim. The chopper turned again and came in low, another arching behind him. A short burst of warning from our M60 as I sprawled in the mud alongside. How our platoon commander got his radio frequency and stayed so cool, I'll never know - but it wasn't standing orders language he was using! The choppers turned away and went back to smashing the sampans. It took me an hour to stop shaking. We dusted off two of our blokes as casualties, their nerves shot to pieces.
The second night had us harboured in ambush readiness in heavy undergrowth. At dusk, the leaves all moved and we thought a tropical downpour had started, but no, we were on a moving bed of scorpions. This was not in the handbook. A mate called out, 'I've been bit!'
'Shuddup. Stay quiet.'
'Jesus I'm smothered in scorpions!'
'Shuddup! Keep your voices down.'
'Will I die?' 'You fuck'n will if you don't shuddup!'
I can feel them on me, heavy on my wet greens. There must be hundreds.
'Let them go. Don't touch them. Don't brush them. Let them go!'
And they stayed for hours and like a suddenly ended downpour left. Both hands were throbbing with pain and the night was quiet and there was no enemy contact.
And now, this night, I am still tremulous as I walk to man the M60, just one step ahead of my own body stench. We have slept in clothes and boots for three days and my face is totally numb. Distant storm flashes give me a glimpse at the jungle all about and my fingers sense-touch the stickiness about my face and neck. It's blood. Blood! Rapid fearful thoughts had my throat cut, but no, it was worse, leeches! Under my lips, at my eyes, at my ears. I retch as I rip them from me, biting some in half. Get them out!
Then I am watching the night for enemy at the trip flare; praying for enemy, wanting action, a break from the silence and the horror that only I can share. I am the lone sentinel, my duty more precious than my fear, and crying in the silence but for the monkey far off but almost cooing, soothing me with the sounds of home, the call of the bronzewing. On relief I return to my hoochie. Stuff this, boots off! I slip into my blanket, and am fighting sleep as I stretch out. I feel a coldness at foot. It moves. I am paralysed with fear. Take stock. Don't panic. Rest and stay still. The mutton-birders never get bitten by snakes in the burrow. Stay still. Freeze. I drift into semi-sleep and hallucinate that it passes along my chest into the night. At dawn I remove more leeches, some from my arse.
Back at Nui Dat we laugh at leeches and scorpions and snakes and cowboy Yank chopper pilots, drink our accumulated beer ration, get very drunk with mates and I have my first cigarette. I will eventually sprawl and kiss the midnight tarmac in Darwin. It is August 1967. We are home in darkness to avoid the demonstrators. 'Which direction's Vietnam?' I turn and salute my mates, still there; most of whom I will never see again ... and never forget. And turn to the darkness which envelopes my country.
Garry 'Snow' Whykes
17 Construction Squadron Workshop, RAEME, 1967-68
It was September 1965 when I joined the Australian Regular Army. My father had died, leaving my mother struggling with three children, and as a lowly apprentice mechanic I was not able to help out really. Australia had become involved in Vietnam and, like my father before me, I wanted to fight for my country. I needed mateship and adventure - this was an opportunity for both.
After recruit training at Kapooka, New South Wales, most of my platoon went to infantry training and subsequently to 6RAR and 'D' Company, but I was corps enlisted and went to the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) Training Centre at Bandiana, Victoria. Near the completion of my course I heard that three of my mates had been killed and others wounded at the Battle of Long Tan. I saw life then in a different perspective.
In March 1967 I celebrated my 19th birthday with a notice to attend a battle efficiency course at Canungra, Queensland and by October I had my posting to Vietnam. I hitch-hiked to Perth to say goodbye to my girlfriend, then back to a farewell party at home in Melbourne. The day I left is etched into my mind. I walked out onto the tarmac at Essendon airport not wanting to look back when I heard an air hostess say, 'You cannot go out there, madam!!' My mother was right behind me. The realisation was that Mum was going through it again after having waited six years for Dad to come home from World War II.
We flew out in a Qantas charter and at Singapore had to change into civvy attire and wait in the terminal while the 707 was refuelled. It was a funny sight, all these young men in floral shirts, dress shirts and various tops - all with polyester trousers and GP boots! Arriving in Vietnam was mind blowing. I had never seen such poverty, destruction and a willingness by the people to do anything to survive: prostitution, black marketeering, gambling and theft. And the smell was something else.
My tour began at Vung Tau. I pulled piquet duty within my first week and wondered what to expect. Viet Cong setting traps on the wire? No, the main task of piquet duty was to make sure that troops who had gone into town and missed the leave truck could get back into the base without getting caught by our MPs. War was hell!
By November 1968 I was at Nui Dat. We maintained a small detachment there consisting of a sergeant, corporal and about five craftsmen as support for the newly-formed Land Clearing Team (LCT). The LCT was given the job of clearing, by bulldozing, land around areas known to harbour Viet Cong; this in turn enabled our troops to set up ambushes where tracks were identified. We went out with the LCT to fire support bases, with my first operation being in the Long Hai hills. Infantry, engineers, RAEME, cooks, medics, we were all there together. At night, the odd mortar was fired into our campsite, and the odd burst of machine-gun fire went out to where our troops thought the enemy might be, but no real fire fights.
The task of the RAEME digger was to keep equipment operational under all sorts of conditions. Our main concern was with land mines and booby traps. We had our share of casualties and damage, especially when a D8 bulldozer was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, setting it on fire and destroying it. When large equipment is out of action it needs to be recovered, and this was another opportunity for the VC to harass our operations. Bringing the wrecked dozer back to Nui Dat we were again mined and suffered casualties.
At the end of my tour we were brought back into Australia under the cover of darkness. It was an empty feeling, one that remains. I did not then, and cannot to this day, understand why we were treated that way. We were soldiers, regulars and nashos, all doing what we were ordered by our country to do. Unfortunately, we had one political party putting us into a war that should not have been, and another using us as a political lever to get themselves into power. Both then wiped us like a dirty arse.
Today, I live in Western Australia. I am a TPI pensioner, and not one day goes by without Vietnam coming into my life somewhere. My wife Heather has stuck with me through the really tough times, although I believe she really does not fully understand why. My daughter Leanne and granddaughter Renée are sympathetic. My son Scott supports me emotionally. They are all important to my survival. And of course during my tour I developed a bond with my mates. I see some often, others not so often, but they are mates and will remain so until the day I die. They understand.
HMAS Parramatta, 1968; HMAS Duchess, 1969
In the eerie pre-dawn light of 28 November 1969, I was on the bridge looking out over the harbour area as the destroyer HMAS Duchess in company with HMAS Sydney entered Vung Tau harbour. In the distance, the sights and sounds of action were in evidence as aircraft could be observed attacking targets in the Long Hai hills. Closer to our ships, three helicopters fired rockets and mini-guns at targets illuminated by a fourth helicopter around VC Hill and Cap St Jacques.
It was a sobering introduction to the Vietnam operational area. After Sydney anchored, Duchess anchored about three cables (540 metres) ahead of her to act as anchor screen whilst Sydney, via barge and helicopter, disembarked 8RAR and then embarked 9RAR for the voyage home. As Gunnery Officer of Duchess it was my responsibility to establish and supervise the preparedness of the ship to meet any likely enemy threat to Sydney or her operations. I was familiar with the harbour as I had been Gunnery Officer in HMAS Parramatta during an escort of Sydney eighteen months earlier.
Duchess had sailed from Sydney twelve days earlier, rendezvousing with Sydney after two days at sea. On entering Market Time Area, a declared 100 nautical mile hostile zone around the coast of Vietnam, our level of preparedness for the escort into and out of the harbour was evaluated from a threat analysis provided in a Situation Report from the harbour control authorities. I issued orders detailing which armament was to be manned and ammunition to be supplied, and explicit instructions as to who was authorised to fire which weapons and under what circumstances. Sydney also issued Rules of Engagement - basically, shoot back very hard if shot at!
The seriousness of the task of protecting Sydney was never in doubt in the minds of our ship's company. It was standard operating procedure after entering Market Time Area to be at the second degree of readiness, Defence Stations, and to go to Action Stations before entering the harbour. On this occasion I decided that all 4.5-inch twin turrets, two 40mm guns and all four 50-calibre heavy machine guns would be made ready and loaded. Our gun system would keep under constant surveillance various distant positions suspected of being able to launch an attack with rocket-propelled grenades or heavy mortars. Meanwhile, armed upper deck sentries were posted to look out for underwater swimmers that might hide beneath objects floating close to the ship, and to fire a couple of rounds into the flotsam to be on the safe side. Boats were lowered for patrols about the ship towing snag lines, checking flotsam and dropping TNT scare charges at random to scare off any would-be saboteur. Scare charges were also thrown from Duchess, in a random timed pattern.
Sydney took similar precautions but her crew's focus was the unloading and back-loading operation, which was completed in about seven hours. About half an hour before weighing anchor, clearance divers conducted bottom searches of the ships to check that no explosive devices had been attached to the hulls or propeller shafts. At noon both ships weighed anchor, and at the debriefing held after clearing Cap St Jacques it was confirmed that no intruders (saboteurs) had been sighted from either ship and that no suspicious objects were found on the hulls. Subsequently my report to the captain, Commander H. J. P. Adams, was that our time in Vung Tau had passed without noteworthy incident. I encouraged him to commend everyone for their diligence and devotion to their tasks, which he did by way of a 'Well done' in Daily Orders and an issue of beer.
By early evening we had cleared Market Time Area and reverted to cruising watches. As well as being Gunnery Officer, I was the Divisional Officer responsible for the welfare of the eighty or so Ordinary Seamen on their first operational voyage, and locum parentis for those aged under 18, which was most of them. I interviewed them all within a day or so to ascertain how they had coped with being so close to the sights and sounds of war. About 25 had occupied exposed stations on or above the upper deck, including the responsible task of upper deck sentry, and I remember being impressed by their mature acceptance of such occurrences as witnessed on entering harbour and during the time at anchor, but somewhat humbled when most indicated that they had taken strength from the competent example set by their seniors. However, those stationed below decks required a degree of support and comfort during and after the event as most suffered, in varying degrees, claustrophobic anxiety, disorientation and fright (a few were sick) as loud noises emanating from exploding scare charges reverberated throughout the ship.
I was very proud of how the ship's company of Duchess had met the challenge of protecting Sydney and was satisfied with my role in their readiness training and keeping their focus on the task.
Wife of Bruce Kidney, 86 Transport Platoon, RAASC, 1968-69
In January 1968 I married the man that I loved. After only three months of marriage, I stood at Mascot Airport saying goodbye to my husband. I was 18 and he was 21. It was the start of a very lonely year.
Bruce was a fun-loving young man who enjoyed life and all it had to offer. We had been together for three years and during that time he had been conscripted for National Service. It was shortly after our honeymoon that we heard he was going to Vietnam. While holding Bruce tightly at the airport I told him how much I loved him and would miss him and assured him that I would be waiting for him when he returned home. I did not want to let go of him, I did not want him to walk to that plane; I was sick with fear, as indeed he was, that he may not return. But like other National Service conscripts, Bruce felt proud to be serving his country.
We wrote to each other almost every day and if a few days went by without a letter I feared the worst: a knock at the door from someone in uniform, or an urgent telegram with bad news. Our soldiers in Vietnam felt likewise - they feared a Dear John letter from a wife or girlfriend to say that they had found someone else. I knew that I would never do that to Bruce but I found it difficult to convince him of that. It was one of their biggest worries. All they had to look forward to, as they crossed each day off the calendar, was coming home to loved ones. All of us, family and friends, tried to maintain contact and reassure him.
I was living with my parents and often visited Bruce's mother, father, two brothers and six sisters who also worried about him. We all wrote to him so that he could feel close to everyone. As well as letters, I made audio tapes so that he could hear all of the voices from home. I also made music tapes to keep him up to date with the latest record releases.
Bruce wrote of things he saw in Vietnam. Although he could not say too much, I could always read between the lines. Things were worse than he was telling me. Every day in Vietnam there was fear, stress, anxiety, fatigue and loneliness. I felt afraid for my husband and the other boys over there - and they were only boys! I watched programs about Vietnam but although it was the first 'television war' anti-war protesters seemed to be the biggest story. This made me angry because our soldiers were putting their lives on the line doing their job. Protesters were calling them baby killers. I remember thinking, 'My husband would not kill babies! My husband would not kill anyone unless it was to save his own life.'
Bruce came home on R & R leave once during his tour. It was wonderful. I remember that he and everyone else cried at Essendon airport. We were happy to have him home and fearful of his return to Vietnam. A few months later, his tour over, Bruce did return safely and I was waiting for him. This time true tears of happiness: he was home to stay! We all thought thank goodness he survived. My father, who had been very ill, waited to see Bruce come home and passed away shortly after - another traumatic event.
Bruce attended Watsonia Barracks for his discharge papers and was asked, 'Do you wish to join the Regular Army?' There was no offer of counselling or any other help to reassociate him back into everyday life. Not even a word of thanks for serving his country! One day in Vietnam, the next back in Melbourne and looking for work. In the city one day we passed some university students handing out anti-war leaflets. Bruce said to a student, 'I just came home from Vietnam.' She spat at him and called him a baby killer. He wanted to retaliate and I had to calm him down. I felt sad and angry for him and for all of the veterans. The Government and people turned their backs on our boys and there was no help at all.
Bruce came home a very different person, withdrawn, would not leave the house willingly and rarely talked about Vietnam. This was not the man that I married; it took me a long time to realise I would never have that man back. Things would never be the same again. But we survived. Bruce and I have been married for 38 years and there have been some very difficult times; however, I would not change a single minute because I love him even more now than I did the day that I married him. I need him, and I need to be there for him.
161 Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery, 1969-70
It was the night that I decided to take my boots off. We usually kept them on when harbouring for the night, in case of an incident while we slept. We had been walking all day and the harbour location seemed safe, particularly as we had sentries posted. The Nui Dinh hills towered above us in the twilight, and sleep came quickly, as it did in the jungle. Then shots! They came thick and fast. Arrows of tracer penetrated the still night air, making a ceiling under which we could work to keep the enemy at bay. The boots came back on and I leopard crawled to the side of the company commander, Major Mike Jeffery, having already ordered over my radio suppression fire from 161 Battery, the direct support battery for 8RAR.
The enemy fire thickened and we received word that one of our number had been killed. I called in Fire Mission All Available and received support from additional 105mm, 155mm and 8-inch artillery. The fight lasted almost an hour until the enemy seemingly withdrew. We breathed again. The darkness intensified. All was quiet. Our dead comrade, who had been on sentry duty, was brought back into the position. Next morning, his body was collected by an Iroquois helicopter after spending the night by my side. We took stock and had a brew.
My role for nine months of my 12 month tour of duty was as a forward observer attached to 9RAR and then 8RAR. Three months before the boots incident, I had been in a reasonable stoush with 9RAR on the Firestone Trail in the north-west of Phuoc Tuy. During an attack on a fortified bunker system, I had directed the guns of 161 Battery directly into the bunkers, destroying a sizeable number of them. This allowed A Company, under Major Bill McDonald, to move in and clear the system. We had casualties, but they were relatively light considering the size of the enemy force in front of us. Again, they used tracer rounds which we could see above our heads and that allowed us to move at a crouch and avoid being hit.
The camaraderie between our two countries forces had been forged on Gallipoli and had never foundered. As forward observers, we Kiwis melded well in the main with the Australian companies to which we were assigned, born of our common heritage and initial training. We knew our business, and provided superior support with professionalism and candour. A difference between us was that whereas the battalions were sent to Vietnam and replaced as formed units, 161 Battery operated on a trickle system of replacing personnel each month.
This did not detract from the incredible camaraderie that was built up between all members of the battery, not only during our individual tours of duty but ever since. The other difference was that whereas Australian battalions trained in semi-tropical areas before being sent to Vietnam, New Zealand gunners trained (often in snow) on the bleak slopes of the Waiouru training area in the central North Island. I did not have the advantage of acclimatising to the tropics before being sent out into the field just 12 hours after arriving in Vung Tau. On that occasion the enemy was assessed to be on the run, and I opted to conduct a rolling barrage ahead of our advance so that the company could advance. This was a real baptism of fire and a stark introduction to a year in conflict.
During my last two months in Vietnam, I was appointed as an Artillery Duty Officer in the 1ATF Command Post, managing artillery support for the Phuoc Tuy area known in fire support terms as Nui Dat Arty. The task was a rostered one with many of my shifts being from midnight to dawn. During my last couple of weeks in Vietnam, I was attached to an American battery in Long Khan. Working with a different nation providing similar support to that of 161 Battery highlighted the differences in operation. I came away believing strongly that Australian and New Zealand soldiers were totally professional and well trained.
Experience in a war zone is difficult to quantify. From siting a location for a battalion position on the edge of thick jungle, to moving slowly and with great difficulty through waist high mangrove swamp, to spending up to six weeks patrolling through wet, dirty, insect-infested secondary jungle, to hearing of the death of mates, to determining the direction from which a mortar round was fired into our position, through to the sublime times in Vung Tau on Rest and Convalescence - all demonstrate the breadth of experience for a young 24-year-old fresh out of Duntroon. Since that fight under the Nui Dinh hills, my boots stayed on at night in the jungle, providing a guarantee that I would always be ready to provide support to the most professional infantrymen I have ever had the privilege to work with.
1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit, 1969-70
I arrived at Nui Dat on 18 June 1969 as a Liaison Officer with the 1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit. Having been called up for National Service in September 1965, I had graduated from the Officer Training Unit, Scheyville, and after transferring into the Australian Regular Army was posted to the RAAF School of Languages for an 11-month Vietnamese language course.
My main job was to visit villages and talk to officials and others, looking for opportunities for civic action projects such as building school rooms or medical dispensaries, installing water reticulation systems, stocking libraries, conducting English language classes, providing stock for chicken or pig breeding programs, conducting medical examinations, and distributing food or goods.
While most Australians drove around Phuoc Tuy in convoys, Civil Affairs members usually operated from single vehicles; and Liaison Officers, not needing interpreters, did it with just their driver. On the day after my arrival, three of us were driving north from Long Hai in a Land Rover when a machine-gun opened up from the hills on our right and shot down an American spotter plane. Its occupants were killed. At this very early stage of my tour, I saw how exposed and vulnerable a vehicle with a driver and passenger, and two rifles, travelling alone could be.
We had the opportunity to see Vietnamese in a more normal light than the average Australian. From the infantry digger's point of view, his routine was going on operations, with the enemy trying to kill him before he killed them; and from R&R in Vung Tau he came back with an empty wallet and often venereal disease. It is understandable how soldiers with almost total negative and frightening contact with Vietnamese were conditioned to dislike and distrust them. Many Australians derogatively referred to Vietnamese as 'nogs' and 'noggies' and to Civil Affairs members as 'noggy lovers'.
For me, seeing Vietnamese in their 'normal' lives was a bonus. When you visited the home of a family whose Viet Cong son was a prisoner, and you delivered a letter to them from the son, or accepted a box with toiletries from the family to be passed back to him, families at war were exposed for the seeing.
One poignant moment was after an incident on 3 August 1969 when three New Zealand artillery shells accidentally landed in Baria, killing a 45-year-old man and, separately, a 12-year-old girl. Next day I took a senior New Zealand officer from Saigon around to the girl's family. The circumstances were tragic, and the family was devastated. The officer was genuine in his offering of condolences, but nothing could overcome their heartbreak.
We also, on occasions, paid solatium which was an American system whereby damages were paid, according to a scale. A broken ox-cart wheel attracted one amount; if the ox was killed, it was worth more. The payment for a human life was the equivalent of US$30, a fortune to poor families. On one occasion I paid solatium to a Popular Forces soldier in Dat Do whose wife was killed in a collision with an Australian vehicle. Although not at fault, Australia accepted responsibility. The soldier had seven children and, with his low income, US$30 was significant. Even so, the look of contempt in his eyes at putting a price on his wife's life has left a lasting image.
My feelings towards the Vietnamese changed over time. In the difficult context of a surrounding war, with 'friendly' forces controlling your village by day but the 'enemy' (Viet Cong) often controlling it at night, I developed the view that a villager's goal in life was to avoid trouble, raise a family and educate their children. The villager probably did not care much who was in power in Saigon or in the province; and perhaps knew little of politics, only that both sides were committing atrocities. I came to like and trust many Vietnamese. These feelings came to extend to South Vietnamese soldiers as well. Early on, I looked on them with disdain. They were poorly led, poorly trained, seemingly fairly non-effective, and quite happy to stay safely in their compounds. But in a country with a culture of war going back centuries, and non-stop since the mid-19th century, it was hardly surprising to find people with a different approach to war. Whereas the Australian ethos is to get in, fight hard, and get it over with, Vietnamese history did not allow them to see an end to war. So people were loath to take risks. Having said this, I remained overall critical of Vietnamese military leadership in Phuoc Tuy.
While the above incidents left their impressions, there were many, many positives working with Civil Affairs. Getting to know many Vietnamese well, not having difficulty talking with them, and feeling that despite our unit's political ('hearts and minds') motive we were still doing something worthwhile made me realise how fortunate I was to have the job I did.
No 2 Squadron, RAAF, 1970-71
I had only been married a few weeks when I left for Vietnam. After years of living in barracks, I was just getting used to wedded bliss, and a tour in a war zone was not the way I wanted to spend my first year of marriage. I arrived at Phan Rang, on an arid plain at the foot of the Central Highlands, in December 1970, expecting to be there for the standard twelve month tour. As it turned out, I was there to see the end of my squadron's time in Vietnam.
No 2 Squadron had been in-country since 1967, attached to the US Air Force's 35th Tactical Fighter Wing. I was one of a team of airframe fitters responsible for maintaining the flight controls, undercarriage and hydraulic, fuel, air conditioning and pressurisation systems of the Canberra bombers. Our days were very routine. We started work at 7.00 am and the first sortie would take off shortly after that. When the aircraft returned, we moved it backwards into a revetment - a steel-walled bay to protect against rocket or mortar blasts. The aircraft was refuelled and any minor repairs carried out to prepare it for the next sortie. We usually finished work at about 4.00 pm unless on late shift when we might work all night if there was a major rectification required.
We had every sixth day off. We could go to the beach where the squadron had a couple of speedboats for water skiing. One was called Fourex, named after the price paid for it to the Yanks - a case of Queensland XXXX beer. Other than that, we could go off base with the chaplain to work on civil aid projects or at orphanages. By the time I arrived, the squadron had set itself up with plenty of amenities, scrounged or legally obtained, including a small swimming pool and an outdoor movie theatre. The Americans had an air conditioned theatre with plush seating a kilometre or so down the road but we preferred our own theatre. In fact, we ground crew had little to do with the Americans.
I remember the heat, appalling food, the boredom of nights spent drinking beer at ten cents a can, and the strong sense of camaraderie which came from being one of a small group of Australians isolated in a sea of Americans a long way from home. I felt remote from the conflict around me, although aware that our aircrew could face danger. Shortly before my arrival, the squadron lost its first aircraft and crew, probably shot down by a surface-to-air missile. In March 1971, a second aircraft was lost in the same area to a missile. Fortunately, this crew, one of whom was our commanding officer, ejected and were recovered a day later, injured but alive.
As far as my own participation in the war was concerned, it was what I had been trained to do and, if I didn't like what we did, it was bit late to start feeling squeamish. At night flares lit up the perimeter and beyond and there was the occasional burst of machine-gun fire with red tracer bullets and the odd mortar explosion. Occasionally I saw air strikes on positions in the nearby hills. A serious attack on our base had occurred shortly before my arrival. There was no way of knowing that it was the last such attack and we had a couple of false alarms. I recall the first one and how frightened I was to be woken by the warning siren from a deep sleep at 2.00 am. I later realised I was not so much afraid of the attack but of losing my nerve and looking silly.
In February 1971, the Government announced that Australian forces in Vietnam were to be reduced. At the end of May, our last mission was carried out and the aircraft left a few days later. We spent a week or so packing equipment, then boarded a Qantas charter flight out of Saigon. I left on 24 June, thinking I would never return. After a few weeks' leave, I reported to my new unit, picked up a couple of medals in a cardboard box and got on with the rest of my life. I spent over 20 years in the Air Force and then joined the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
In October 2005 I stood on a low hill near Thap Cham in Vietnam at the site of two 13th century temples. My interest was not in the temples but in Phan Rang, a few kilometres away. As I studied the base through binoculars I could see that almost nothing had changed. The hangars, runways and revetments were as I remembered them. It brought back a flood of memories of hard work, camaraderie, amusing experiences and odd moments of apprehension. My Vietnam service was an interesting part of my life which I did not regret but had no wish to repeat.
20th Tactical Air Support Squadron, USAF, 1971
When I was posted to Vietnam in early 1971, on secondment to the US Air Force, I had no idea what to expect. There were no briefings, just surreal and colourful stories from guys who had been there. Having been brought up on a diet of legendary stories from World War II, and trained as a RAAF fighter pilot, this posting as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) was exciting, and quite naturally had to be taken. I told my wife and her approval was taken for granted - no debate, no tears - only years later did I realise what she went through.
I had spent time in Southeast Asia but Saigon was a revelation. It was very much alive, and slowly dying at the same time. It bustled and moved in a haze of dust and fumes fed by a vast amount of American military dollars. Three years after the Tet offensive, it appeared resilient and frenetic, trying somehow to hide both its desperation and the fact that it was fraying at its edges.
After 'clearing in' at Vung Tau I was sent to Cam Ranh Bay for 'in theatre indoctrination', then Da Nang for conversion to OV-10 Bronco aircraft, and finally Chu Lai where the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron was based. We had about fifteen FACs - mostly Americans but with three Australians and a couple of Kiwis, and our boss was Wing Commander Col 'Ackers' Ackland, RAAF. We were all fighter pilots - a necessity for a FAC, as the task required an intimate understanding of fighter ground attack operations and the ability to think from many different perspectives at once. Australian and New Zealand FACs were highly valued because, particularly later in the war, the USAF was short of real fighter pilots for this role.
The scope of the US war effort was astounding, at least to my 23-year-old eyes. The 'in country' war had ebbed and flowed and even though 1971 was not the hottest year of the war, the sky was full of activity with helicopters everywhere, transports criss-crossing the country, and FACs and fighters flying day and night. On the ground, army enclaves and fire support bases (FSBs) dotted the length and breadth of South Vietnam.
We supported the US Army's 23rd (Americal) Division. Our area of operations stretched from near Qui Nhon in the south almost to Da Nang, and across to the Laotian border. It included coastal plains and highlands and we got to know our patches well, noticing small changes that often signalled enemy activity. FACs supported the 'grunts' in fire fights by bringing air strikes to where they were needed and by controlling artillery and helicopter support. We could bring a lot of destructive power to bear accurately and at short notice. We also sought out enemy supply lines running off the Ho Chi Minh Trail beneath the impenetrable jungle of the highlands, calling in fighters or attacking with our own rockets and machine-guns.
The Americans had built FSBs up into the lower mountains. They were remote and vulnerable, and saw some very wild fighting. From a FAC's perspective, controlling air strikes onto a threatened FSB perimeter was quite easy as the target was clearly identifiable. In these situations, as in many when troops were engaged in fire fights, napalm was an excellent weapon: it had a limited area of effectiveness and could be dropped very close to your own troops. The time had come however for the more remote FSBs to be shut down, as the cost of holding and maintaining them was high. This was made uncomfortably clear when I was flying as cover and a Chinook helicopter crashed while approaching an FSB, killing nearly 50 soldiers.
In October our airbase was blown away by Typhoon Hester. We moved to Da Nang, at that time the busiest airfield in the world. There seemed to be more enemy activity in the plains now, but the American commitment had weakened. The individual professionalism of the fighting men remained but it was not enough. The beautiful landscape of this part of Vietnam was littered with the remains of the aircraft of our colleagues - we kept a marked-up map in our ops room - and many lie there still, testament to a rare sacrifice, not fully rewarded.
Myself, Chris Mirow and Bruce Wood were the last RAAF FACs in Vietnam. At the start of December we returned to Vung Tau and after one last party boarded the 'freedom bird', a Qantas 707, at Tan Son Knut. Back in Australia we melted back into a 'normal life', flying Mirage fighters and planning what young people plan for. We didn't talk about our war service much - no reason to really - and only later have some of us searched our consciousness for more. For me a watershed was reached in 1985 when I visited the US Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. It silently shook me to the core and I felt a sudden clarity that will never leave me.
7th Battalion, RAR, 1970
I sat in the dust and watched my spilled blood slowly turn it to mud. My legs lay at an impossible and unnatural angle, and I was afraid to put my M60 machinegun down in case it set off another mine. Waves of intense pain were breaking over me and I could feel the icy, vice-like grip of fear. That ultimate predator, death, was hovering. I owe my life to the courage and cool discipline of my mates who worked in a furious but controlled manner clearing a path to me. With grim patience I waited for the sweet sound of the 'dustoff ' chopper.
A week later saw me leaving the 1st Australian Field Hospital on a medivac flight, minus my legs but eternally thankful and grateful for a spared life. My battles were just beginning. At Butterworth the surgeon took one look at me and decided I would not be on the next flight home. I called him a 'black bastard' but came to regret those words. He knew his business. His surgical skill saved me from skin grafts later on and his psychological skills and the enforced stopover helped me prepare emotionally for the reunion with my wife and daughter. I would never again judge a man by the colour of his skin.
What a homecoming. To avoid media exposure we were snuck into Australia in the pre-dawn darkness. The war was not going well for the government, and coverage of returning wounded and limbless soldiers would not have been a good look. But the embrace of loved ones was warm and welcomed.
The years of rehab were the worst in my life. There was no program for blokes like myself. I had left school at 15 and now needed to use my brain to find employment. I had to go back to school. The Army chose an institution run out of an old home in Toorak, Melbourne, for myself and Tom Bourke, also ex-7RAR. We were taught basic English, maths and woodwork - a breadboard! After a few weeks of this, Tom did his block in spectacular fashion and told the powers that be to stick it up their fundamental orifice and stormed out. I explained to the manager the problem. This bloke accused me of being ungrateful and not appreciating what my country was doing for me! I stayed and progressed to long division and reading books of grade seven level, and in occupational therapy graduated to making moccasins - it did not seem to faze them that I had no legs.
I wanted to get back to WA but once there I found that I was to be discharged. I had not wanted to lose the security offered by the Army. I was desperate to be able to care for my wife and daughter, buy a house and have more children. It was an empty feeling standing in the orderly room at Karrakatta. No thanks, no goodonya mate, no best wishes for the future. Just sign here and piss off!
I felt the loneliness of being a Vietnam veteran - the cold shoulder of indifference, ignorance and hostility - and the anger, even learning that my mother was subjected to hate mail after I lost my legs. I got into a clerical course, under a Repatriation Department program, and found myself in a class with adolescent girls who went out of their way not to be friendly, and with an English teacher who took an instant dislike to this Vietnam vet in her classroom. It was physically challenging also. It was summer, and my artificial legs, held on by suction, often fell off mid-stride and I had to sit on my bum and drag myself up or down stairs before putting them back on. And sitting in the classroom when the suction broke and caused a loud fart-like sound was a moment of indescribable embarrassment.
At the end of that two years the rehab unit bloke supposedly supervising me said he had a job for me. With my hopes buoyed, we drove to a factory where people with disabilities were sitting along benches sorting paper clips, polishing old tins and separating lids from glass jars. The miserable bastard was offering me a job in a sheltered workshop! I stumbled down the stairs, tears welling. I can't remember how I got home or what I told my wife Noelene, but I was determined never to put myself under the control of the system again. Then a mate of Dad's (both World War II blokes) told me of a job at the Base Ordnance Depot in Guildford. I nearly jumped the bloody desk and kissed him! What a wonderful feeling to be back at work - and with blokes in the forces, many of them Vietnam veterans.
I should have lost my life that day in Vietnam and whenever the Honour Roll is read out I know how close I came to being on it. But life has been a bonus for me and every day lived is a day loved.
No 4 RAAF Hospital, 1970-71, 1975
In April 1970 I was posted to No 4 RAAF Hospital, Butterworth, Malaysia as a nursing sister. I was on the roster to medivac casualties from the field hospital in Vung Tau to Butterworth and on to Australia. These flights in C-130 Hercules were long, noisy and uncomfortable for the team and patients but we worked hard to make the trip as pleasant as possible for the sick and wounded.
The medivac team usually comprised a doctor, two flight nurses and a medical orderly but was adjusted according to any special requirements of the patient load. Our regular run to Vung Tau was every second Monday, departing Butterworth at 0600 hours for the two-hour flight. On arrival we were transported to the hospital in a bus with armed escort, and briefed on each patient prior to meeting them. The team introduced themselves and briefed the patients on what to expect during the flight. This was necessary because a Hercules is noisy, and everyone was issued earplugs, making inflight communication almost impossible. The patients were then loaded onto an Ambulance Bus (Ambus) and we were transported to the airfield. The Ambus was designed to back up to the rear of the aircraft and the patients on their litters (stretchers) were loaded across a bridging ramp.
On arrival in Butterworth everyone was loaded onto another Ambus and taken to the hospital. The remainder of the day was spent reassessing patients, and attending to dressings and personal needs. Next day it was more assessments, X-rays, dressings, et cetera, and any patient not well enough for the long trip to Australia would remain at Butterworth until they were stable enough to travel. The others were flown out that afternoon. A Red Cross worker did any shopping they wanted, while the medivac team checked equipment and supplies and completed paperwork including customs and immigration forms, manifests, load plans and ration orders.
If we were lucky we had a couple of hours off in the afternoon before returning for our overnight flight to Australia. Once again patients were briefed, and after an early evening meal we boarded the Ambus. The patients (in litters) were placed four rows down the length of the cargo area, and stacked up to four high if we had a full load. The most seriously ill were always carried at the back.
We became the masters of improvisation because once airborne there was no returning for more equipment or supplies. After a 12-13 hour flight we would land mid-morning on the Wednesday at RAAF Base Richmond, and after completing Customs and Immigration formalities the patients were transported to No 3 RAAF Hospital. We had a couple of days off before returning to Malaysia.
In 1974 I was again posted to Butterworth. Australia's involvement in the war had all but ended and so had the requirement for medivacs. However, early on the morning of 4 April 1975 four nursing sisters and four medical orderlies were called to duty. We were told that we were going to Saigon, which was in danger of falling, to evacuate war orphans to Bangkok. We were to bring passports, an overnight bag and Australian currency (in case we ended up back in Australia). We spent the morning preparing cardboard boxes with foam rubber mattresses to act as bassinettes and packing equipment, including baby bottles filled with boiled water to keep them hydrated. We took off at about 1300 hours.
On arrival at Tan Son Nhut Airport we learned that all non-essential employees and families from our embassy were also being evacuated. Two Hercules were to be used by them, leaving the remaining two for orphans. Buses arrived and we loaded 87 children and babies and five Australian orphanage helpers onto our Hercules. The youngest was two days old; so desperate were parents to get their children out of the country that five babies had been thrown through bus windows en route to the airport.
Rather than use the prepared boxes, we laid the babies across litters (five per litter) and secured them with a strap. We then put a bottle in each baby's mouth, propping it on the baby in front, to keep them sucking which helped prevent ears problems and maintained their hydration. Sadly, as we were taking off, a USAF C-5A Galaxy crashed in front of us, killing more than 200 orphans, helpers and crew. Some of the Australians thought it was our flight that had crashed. We flew out to Bangkok and were met by embassy wives who gave us much needed and gratefully accepted assistance. Tan Son Nhut had been closed after the Galaxy crash and it was five hours before the Hercules carrying embassy folk and another 107 children and escorts arrived at Bangkok. The orphans were handed to the Red Cross and transported to Australia in a chartered Qantas 747. Very tired, we returned to Butterworth.
86 Transport Platoon, RAASC, 1971-72
We were going home. The 1st Australian Task Force had been withdrawn in October, and the 1st Australian Logistic Support Group at Vung Tau was packing up. It was a year since I headed out to Adelaide airport on 26 January 1971 - Australia Day, how appropriate! I had farewelled my family, friends and sweetheart Clare, and boarded Ansett Flight 241 to Sydney; then Darwin and on to South Vietnam. I was 21 years and 3 months, a 2nd Lieutenant, posted as second-in-command of 86 Transport Platoon.
It seemed unreal. The heat, the dust, the humidity. Within days I was detached to Nui Dat as Operations Officer of the Task Force Maintenance Area, coordinating helicopter resupply of units in the field. In July back to Vung Tau, and endless convoys - Saigon, Long Binh, Baria, Xuyen Moc, and down to Lang Phuoc Hai or up Route 2 past Binh Ba to Garth. I got back to Aussie in September for R&R. Wild days! Except at the Adelaide Show I broke down when the fireworks started - still on a 'hair trigger' it seems. Back to Vietnam and detached to an American transport battalion at Long Binh. We did a long convoy up to Bao Luc, a few hundred kilometres north-east of Saigon. Cobra gunships covered us as we drove along narrow, dusty tracks through the mountains, bamboo pushing in from every side, past burnt out vehicles - relics from a convoy ambushed the previous day.
You see the big picture in transport - the villages and the people. I think you understand it all a little better. The 'grunt' on the front-line, I imagine one bit of jungle looks much like any other. Watching the Americans interact with the locals, you saw they had truly lost their way, morally and militarily. Their cultural arrogance and extraordinary disrespect for the people they claimed to be 'protecting' was mind-blowing.
Back to 86 Transport Platoon. We were still doing convoys and it was a bit more dangerous now that the enemy knew we were leaving. The locals knew too. It was good to be going home, but sad to be leaving the South Vietnamese to who knows what fate. They deserved better. Lockdown. Confined to base until our departure. Time to get the huts ready to hand over to the ARVN. Only six beds and six lockers to be left in each hut - no exceptions! And what about all that extra equipment the boys had added over the last five years? Could we give it to the orphanage? 'No,' said Headquarters, 'smash it, throw it into the dam, and that's an order.' Bullshit! Time to call in the Padre, Father Bernie Maxwell. 'Leave it to me,' he said. So we loaded up a truck with tons of gear, stereos, fans, TVs, fridges, et cetera. We got to the front gate and were stopped by a big MP: 'I have to search the truck, Father.' I could see a court martial looming! Father Bernie asked, 'Is that really necessary, my son?' As if touched from above, the MP paused and responded, 'Well, if I can't trust the Catholic padre, who can I trust? Pass through, Father.' Whew! Divine intervention and the orphanage was so grateful.
86 Transport Platoon was one of the last units to leave. They were a wild lot and it was sad to see the boys go - Chongy, Deadly, Fish, Goldy, Cannonball, Blue, Torana, Mick, Ghengis, Bill and the others. If it wasn't nailed down, they would eat it, drink it or steal it! But they were fair dinkum, true blue, just like their fathers and, I imagine, their grandfathers before them. I was privileged to be their OC.
Walking through empty buildings, this seemed a special moment in time - doors banging in the wind and the base eerily deserted. Vietnamese workers were crying and distressed. I lied to them, reassuring them that we would be back 'if the VC come'. As it turned out, the Viet Cong did come - four weeks later - but we were never going to go back. I never really got over the friends I lost in Vietnam, nor the desertion of those we had so comprehensively fought to support and protect. The last of us formed the final convoy and headed down to De Long Pier, then by landing craft out to HMAS Sydney. Our vehicles came out on barges. We weighed anchor on Tuesday 29 February 1972 and gave the liver a 'flogging' on the way home - nearly fell overboard one night - reaching Sydney twelve days later.
First week back.
On leave in Adelaide I went to a disco with a mate. Didn't enjoy it too much, so we went downstairs for fish and chips. Waiting in the queue, my mate asked about Vietnam. A girl our age just in front of me swung around and asked if I had been there. When I nodded she slapped my face and screamed, 'You baby bayoneting bastard!'
Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, 1970-71
After returning to Australia in May 1971, I was posted to Battle Wing of the Jungle Training Centre, Canungra, as an instructor. I soon realised how invaluable was the operational experience and knowledge I had gained in Vietnam. It enabled me to inject realism into teaching points and explanations regarding tropical warfare, and enhanced my credibility and legitimacy as an instructor. This was important because some of the Australian officers and senior non-commissioned officers on the courses were being trained for service in Vietnam as advisors; while foreign soldiers included Cambodian officers who were to command units in combat against the North Vietnamese Army.
I was in the Army, as a member of the Royal Australian Infantry Corps, more than five years before I went to Vietnam. I joined the Citizen Military Force (CMF) in January 1965, before volunteering to do National Service (starting in April 1967) and was a Second Lieutenant on Battle Wing, Canungra. I felt it was difficult to be an effective instructor while not having operational experience, and as the Army showed no intention of sending me to Vietnam as an officer, I resigned my commission and re-enlisted as a soldier. I deployed to Vietnam with 2RAR in May 1970, and during the first week there was offered the opportunity to transfer to the AATTV and join a six-man Mobile Advisory and Training Team (MATT) serving with South Vietnamese Regional and Popular Force units in Phuoc Tuy.
While I wasn't involved in any major battles or catastrophic events, Vietnam did provide me with periods of danger and excitement, including being under small arms fire at close range, helicopter operations, and experiencing close air support. Serving alongside American and South Vietnamese troops showed me their methods and military cultures; while living with Vietnamese soldiers and their families in a military compound gave me insights into their thoughts and way of life, plus the effects of guerrilla warfare at the village level. I also took every opportunity to gain experience of different operational activities, including a night mission with a heavy fire team of 'Bushranger' helicopter gunships and an aerial reconnaissance in a Porter light aircraft. For me, my twelve months in Vietnam was both an adventure and a valuable life experience - it helped me to mature and develop as a man and a soldier.
I was relieved to have survived my tour, knowing that the military experience was likely to have a positive rather than negative effect on my future, especially from a military perspective. I was part of that generation of regulars who did benefit from service in this war. Subsequent postings as a Sergeant to 6RAR and Depot Company, RAR, and as a Warrant Officer with the Officer Cadet Training Unit in 3 Training Group reinforced the benefit of operational experience in instructing and training soldiers. Vietnam provided a rich background of knowledge and experience that I and my fellow veteran instructors could draw upon to assist in our instructional and leadership responsibilities. Leaders and combat arms instructors with operational experience can colour tactical thinking, judgement and instruction, instead of speaking from just theoretical knowledge. The good ones reduce the exposure of their soldiers to 'military bullshit' and inject realism into training. I believe that Vietnam made me a better soldier and instructor.
The benefits of my operational service also came out in later postings relating to military history. In 1985 I became the curator of the Infantry Museum; as Vietnam veterans in Infantry were becoming scarce, my mates joked about me being another relic on display! I enthusiastically researched the history of infantry and weapons, but also found that my Vietnam experience helped in talking to soldiers, civilians and school children. Then, as Museums Warrant Officer with the Army History Unit, I carried the respect of being a veteran as well as curator, which was especially valuable on a 17-day visit to Somalia collecting relics. I was also invited to write on small arms weapons for The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History; wrote Redcoats to Cams: A History of Australian Infantry, 1788-2001 (published in 2004); and in 2002 was the first non-commissioned officer to present a paper at a Chief of Army's History Conference, speaking on 1st Australian Task Force operations in Vietnam, with the added status of Vietnam veteran.
Also interesting, though less satisfying, was involvement in a civilian exhibition, Vietnam Voices, by the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre. I was able to bring unique positive perspectives about the war, but although the exhibition was visually appealing it remained anti-war, with servicemen as victims, and did not show what Australian forces did in Vietnam. For me that was a great disappointment.
Now, as I approach the end of my military career, I can reflect on the great value of the experience and knowledge gained in Vietnam and the positive influence it has had on my life. It gave legitimacy to my military career and to my involvement with Australian military history.
1 SAS Squadron, 1970
On Anzac Day 1916, repatriated veterans of Gallipoli gathered in the Domain in Sydney to remember their fallen and wounded comrades. There was little formal organisation and not much coverage of the event; nowadays, a stone with a simple inscription marks this gathering. In October 1987 we, the veterans of Vietnam, gathered for the same reason. I was repatriated home in October 1970, wounded. There was no support for Vietnam veterans from the government, the community or returned service organisations. I remember my proud dad taking me to my first Anzac Day march in 1971 only to be chastised by World War II veterans as 'not having served in a real war' and for having taken part in a war they were opposed to. It hurt Dad, and it hurt me. I hoped that one day things could be 'put right' and that our story could be told so that we would be appreciated by our fellow citizens for having 'served'.
Following the welcome home parade in Chicago, USA in 1984, Sir Colin Hines, President of the New South Wales Branch of the RSL, was approached to discuss staging a similar event in Sydney. Sir Colin was right behind Vietnam veterans and agreed to chair a public meeting at ANZAC House. At that inaugural meeting on 9 November 1985 an organising committee was formed, and I accepted the positions of Deputy Chairman and Parade Commander. We started work out of Sir Colin's office until allocated our own. A senior RSL officeholder told us not to waste our time organising a parade: 'You won't get 500 to it!' That annoyed us and made us all the more determined. Over the two-year lead-up an extensive publicity campaign was undertaken including appearances on TV and talkback radio, and community service announcements featuring wartime footage and a song, 'Somewhere Tonight', sung by Normie Rowe. All three levels of government as well as industry, veteran organisations, community groups and - overwhelmingly! - members of the public provided assistance. Approximately $120,000 was raised, and the date was set for 2-4 October 1987.
We were unsure as to how many veterans and their families would turn up. We arranged reception centres at the airport, bus terminals and train stations and set up a billeting system for those who had no money for accommodation. NSW Railways provided free transport, and the Federal Government offered free RAAF flights for necessitous veterans. Coaches from Adelaide, Melbourne and Cairns collected men along the route. A certain rich West Australian businesswoman even provided her jet, free of charge, to bring miners from the goldfields. The ABC agreed to air the parade around the country for those unable to attend. The VVCS feared a big emotional 'let-down' by many veterans afterwards and provided for that in their forward planning.
On the morning of the parade I was in the Domain placing out markers for the units to form up near, and I wondered if it had all been worth it. The giving up of all my free time and the personal expense (no director received remuneration for expenses incurred) was large. But I knew that the other committee members had done the same. My question was answered as the veterans started to roll in to the park. First they were in groups of tens, then hundreds, eventually thousands.
It was the largest gathering of Vietnam veterans in our nation's history. The media focused, naturally, on the Welcome Home Parade but for the veterans and their families it was much more. Unit reunions were held on the Friday night. On Saturday morning a Dawn Service at the Cenotaph set the scene for reflection - a time to remember lost mates, hard times, the difficulties adjusting to 'civvy life', and the emotional roundabout that was life after Vietnam. We also remembered mates who 'survived the war but did not survive the peace'. The parade was later that morning, and an estimated 30,000 veterans marched, with more than one million people cheering them on: family, veterans of previous wars and others. The once again 'young men', and some women, who had gone off to war received their victory parade. Reunion luncheons followed, and on the Sunday a free family concert in the Domain wrapped up the event.
By the time of the weekend, I was exhausted and running on adrenalin. I was pleased to see many former comrades, but I remained detached from the sentiment. There were responsibilities at hand and issues to address as they arose. I really was not aware of how the event changed people's lives until afterwards when so many veterans and their families thanked us for having given dignity and pride to our veterans. I did not have time to march the full route, only to jump in where I could. I still am emotionally 'numb' about the whole Welcome Home. My emotions have not caught up with it, nor with many other aspects of my service. They probably never will.
1st Australian Civil Affairs Unit, 1969
The Welcome Home Parade exceeded the expectations of the organising committee. When I saw the elation on my fellow veterans' faces and the wonderful reception by the people of Sydney, I asked myself why it hadn't been done earlier. Little did most people know, we were determined to continue on in an endeavour to build a national memorial to all Australians who had served, suffered or died in the Vietnam War. We did not want their sacrifice to go unrecognised by future generations.
At a civic reception after the parade, Prime Minister Bob Hawke remarked that I should be happy with what we had achieved. I had thought about my response and with press and other people standing around us, seized the moment and stated that we would like to build a memorial on ANZAC Parade, Canberra. He replied that he could not see a problem and that we should put in a submission. It was of course granted, and the hard work began.
Organising the Welcome Home had given us a network of volunteer workers around Australia, but still we wondered whether we could raise enough money and if we could handle the logistics. Personally, I questioned if I could see the project out, knowing how time-consuming it would be. But we pressed on, setting a budget of $800,000 (this rose to just over $1.2 million). There was significant government support, with funding from the Federal Government reaching $250,000, and the States and Territories also contributing; however the bulk of funds raised for the memorial came from veterans, other public donations and some corporate sponsorship. Sometimes, when financial support slowed down, we would worry that we may have bitten off more than we could chew but there were moments that lifted our spirits. I particularly remember opening an envelope containing a note, 'I am only a pensioner but I hope this small donation helps', with a $2 coin affixed.
We held a design competition, and Westpac arranged for a scale model of the winning design to be displayed at its branches around the country. A video was also produced so that veterans living in isolated areas could view the design. As the model and video travelled around Australia, substantial funds were raised, and we grew confident. The ground breaking ceremony took place on 6 September 1991, and at this point we realised that the goals we had set to remember our fallen and comrades were close to being achieved. Work on the memorial commenced in earnest the following January, and the structure took shape.
An important part of the design was a scroll listing the names of our fallen to be placed inside the memorial, as a symbolic resting place. It was sealed in a granite ring segment by the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Army inside King's Hall, Old Parliament House, on 2 July 1992. Tears came to my eyes on this solemn occasion. I thought of my very good friend Ian Kingston, 6RAR, killed in action in September 1969, and another friend, Bernie Binder, 9RAR, killed in a mine explosion the following month. I thought also of those who had died since. One in particular that affected me was the suicide of a Vietnam veteran that I attended not long after returning to the NSW Police Service at Goulburn; reading the note that he left, I strongly believed that something had to be done to acknowledge our Vietnam veterans.
Planning the dedication ceremony was a major task. The Department of Veterans' Affairs played a key role with office equipment, funding and support staff; and the Australian Defence Force also did everything humanly possible, including office support and arranging accommodation at bases around Canberra. When the planning and ceremonial aspects were being discussed, I put forward on behalf of the committee a request to the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General John Grey, that all colours, banners and guidons of the Australian Army be paraded as well as the Navy and Air Force colours. We thought the response would be in the negative, but to our surprise he agreed that it would be appropriate for the occasion. The only other time this had occurred previously was the Queen's Jubilee visit to Australia.
I awoke at 3.00 am on 3 October 1992 and pondered what was to unfold. On arrival for the Dawn Service, I saw an enormous crowd and said to myself, 'We have done it. Don't worry.' The memories of that day I will treasure forever. Now, when I stand before the memorial, I think of the five years of hard slog, knowing it was worth every second. The Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial stands as a lasting tribute to all who served in Vietnam and is a symbolic resting place for our comrades who did not return. It could not have been achieved without the dedication of all on the committee and the support of Vietnam veterans and other sections of the Australian community.
RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam, 1968, 1969
It sounded simple. It was 2000 and I had just retired from the Royal Australian Navy after thirty-plus years, and my mates were congratulating me for taking on the challenge of coordinating a reunion of the 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC), US Army. I was not surprised that an Australian naval person should be doing this; after all, our RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam was incorporated into this unit. I was surprised that I could be so naïve. I stood still whilst everyone else took a step back when the man said, 'Step forward those who wish to volunteer.'
I thought we could just organise a gathering, erect a monument, have it unveiled, and have a few beers afterwards. It turned out to be more complex than that. For one thing, there is no official 135th AHC association, although most of us in Australia belong to the Fleet Air Arm Association which acts as an umbrella organisation. We were just old mates getting together to make things happen.
The 135th AHC was operational from October 1967 to January 1972. From the start, until late 1971, the Australian sailors were integrated into the unit. It was designated an Experimental Military Unit and allocated the call sign 'EMU'. And naturally we all became 'EMUs'. And we 'did good'! We earned an enviable reputation for professionalism and outstanding achievements, although not without cost: 37 EMUs were killed. I can break that down into nationalities - 32 American and five Australian - but really we were not Aussies and Yanks, we were EMUs.
To celebrate and honour the lives and sacrifices of our comrades it was only natural that we would want to do so as one unit of Australians and Americans. But that was to become the main stumbling block in our efforts to erect a monument. We had hoped to lock into Government initiatives for commemoration funding but were told that by dedicating the monument to 'foreign forces' as well as Australians we were not eligible for any of the funding schemes. The frustration of this felt by the public servants administering the schemes was obvious and nearly equal to ours. But, rules were rules and we had to go it alone.
It was beginning to seem impossible. There was no funding and no land to put the monument on. Then, when the reunion was only months away, the Bomaderry RSL Sub-Branch, custodians of Walsh Park, where the local war memorial stands, offered to have our monument co-located. This was a breakthrough. The park is a stone's throw from HMAS Albatross, the naval air station at Nowra, and by having RSL support we were able then to approach Shoalhaven City Council and negotiate the monument's siting. The council also offered assistance, and supported our application to another agency for material for the monument - a large granite rock. Once that was approved, transport and lifting equipment, power and ancillary support, site preparation, foundations, et cetera all pretty much fell into place. And so did the rock! Once positioned, and plaques attached, a squillion smaller details were attended to in time for it to be unveiled by Admiral Chris Barrie, then Chief of the Defence Force, during the 135th AHC reunion on the 2002 Anzac Day weekend.
As luck would have it, the Federal Government had also announced approval for foreign decorations to be accepted by Australians. A number of Australian EMUs had been awarded US decorations but had been unable to legally accept them. American EMUs had been working behind the scenes for some time and helped arrange to have our medals awarded by the US Ambassador at the unveiling.
Success was a long hard slog for many, not least my wife Denise without whose help and encouragement it would never have happened. If it was not for the impression that we would have been able to lock into government funding for the monument we would never have started on it; now I strongly suspect that if we had secured funding, the project would not have been as successful or rewarding as it was. The reunion attracted Australian and American EMUs and their families from across the country and around the world. And the monument made the reunion! It was worth every bit of effort. It was needed for a lot of vets and their families, giving many an opportunity to set ghosts to rest; and for a lot of locals (civilian and uniformed) as it was an opportunity to give Vietnam veterans some public recognition which some may not have had the opportunity to give before.
We went on to assist American EMUs to erect another monument at Fort Rucker, Alabama, USA. They also experienced difficulty wanting to erect a monument to foreigners on the hallowed ground of the US Army's home of Aviation, but they got there. These projects go to prove what a bunch of old EMUs can achieve. Our unit motto, after all, was Get the Bloody Job Done!
96th Ranger (Biet Dong Quan) Battalion, ARVN, 1972-74
When I arrived in Australia in 1981, I felt lucky. I was living in a free country, with a bright future. But that luck was paid for by other people's misfortune: Australian, New Zealand, American, South Korean, Thai, Filipino and South Vietnamese soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the fight for freedom of my former homeland.
How many South Vietnamese servicemen lost their lives during the war? It's not really known. In order to wipe out the evidence, after the war the Viet Cong destroyed their cemeteries. Even the innocent statue 'Thuong Tiec' (The Mourning Soldier) in front of Bien Hoa Military Cemetery was hammered into pieces.
In Melbourne, I could meet and pay my respects to Vietnam veterans. But of the 520 fallen Australian heroes, there'd been no way I could do that. I'd never met them as I was sent to Pleiku to fight the VC, while the Aussies were in the Phuoc Tuy area. I felt that we, the South Vietnamese who call this country home now, owed all who fought in defence of our former country something for their sacrifice and we also needed somewhere that we could go to commemorate our war dead. I wanted to have a place to commemorate them all. Somewhere that myself, my family and veteran friends can come to, burn an incense stick to pray for their souls and say 'thank you'.
I talked to some of my veteran friends, looking to form a group called The Vietnam War Memorial of Victoria. Some agreed, some didn't want to talk about it, and some laughed at me saying, 'That job is for the Department of Veterans' Affairs, not yours.' Others told me to leave it for the Vietnamese Veterans Association. Our answer was: 'The memorial will be built, not by a single group but by the whole Vietnamese community, the Australian and South Vietnamese veterans, for our fallen heroes. We need to do it, and we will do it!' On 28 February 2001 we started looking for a piece of land. We contacted five city councils, having at least 20 meetings, but none gave their approval. Finally, it took a veteran to understand the needs of other veterans! John Wells, a Vietnam veteran, of the Dandenong RSL, offered us a place to build our memorial.
We raised money from our South Vietnamese community and from Australian veterans' groups, with donations, raffles and fund-raising dinners, and a grant from the Victorian Government. The US Army donated a 'Huey' dust-off helicopter. The Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, a Vietnam veteran, unveiled the Vietnam War Memorial of Victoria on 30 April 2005. It was a big day for us.
Our memorial consists of two life-size bronze statues of an Australian and a South Vietnamese soldier on a granite stone base. They are in full combat gear and stand their ground, ready - holding their rifles with two hands to protect each other and the 'Huey', as it takes off with its precious cargo. This depicts the relationship between Australian and Vietnamese, standing side-by-side in their fight to protect the freedom of the people of South Vietnam. There is also a cement incense holder; a Wall of Honour detailing the significant battles, locations and dates that occurred during the war; and a Flag Wall that is a reproduction of the Flags Tribute built by the South Vietnamese in Vung Tau to pay respect to those countries that contributed to the fight.
On Vietnam Veterans' Day, I was at the memorial and noticed a young man taking many photos of the bronze soldiers. I asked him, curiously: 'You like the soldiers, do you?' He said yes and continued taking shots. 'How many have you taken?' It was about 200. He then proudly showed me his album from his camera bag. 'Why just the two soldiers?' The young man looked at me in disbelief and said, 'You are not the artist, are you?' Not waiting for my reply, he pointed at the statues and his photos to explain:
The soldiers look different at any different time you look at them. Look! I took this photo at dawn, when the sun shone on them. The scene looked like a battlefield, with fire everywhere. It's like the soldiers were ambushed and rushing out from a fierce artillery fight. And at noon, see this photo? The weather in Vietnam was so hot, the Aussie guy couldn't cope with the heat, and his sweat dropped out from the bush hat! See that drop? And the Vietnamese guy, he's used to the heat, but he still needs to open two buttons on his shirt to get some fresh air. And at night! When their surroundings are nearly invisible, the two soldiers look worried; they stand closer to each other, clutching their rifles tightly - see how the veins stand out in their hands? They're checking around very seriously, see their big eyes? I am a soldier as well, and I want to be like them, the freedom fighters.
HQ Australian Forces Vietnam, 1969 and 1st Field Squadron, RAE, 1970-71
I've been asked many times why I wrote Not Quite Men, No Longer Boys: a Sapper's tale. There were several reasons. I wanted to write a story of that time and era; of what it was like to be just an ordinary digger, what we did from day to day. I also wanted people to know what an engineer and more specifically a sapper did. And lastly, I wanted to write the story in a way that would take the reader along on a journey with me and the mates I served with.
What really got me started was the 1987 Welcome Home Parade. At the time I was working and living in Darwin and all us Northern Territory boys flew down to Sydney. It was one of the most emotional times of my life - walking down those Sydney streets being greeted by the Australian public and being acknowledged for the first time for what we did. It affected me greatly, so much so that on my return to Darwin I sat down and wrote a poem, 'The Tunnel Rats Of Phuoc Tuy', featured at the front of my book. I had never written anything as far as poetry goes prior to this attempt, but the poem just flowed out of me. That was the catalyst for me to write my story. I decided there and then that I wanted to write a sapper's tale.
I didn't want to write a military history in the true sense. It wasn't possible anyway, as I didn't have the resources or the time to do that. I was still working in those days. The closest I could get was to write a fictionalised account of my experiences and of the young men around me. I wanted to ensure that a lot of the troop 'folklore' was recorded and use the freedom of the 'writer's licence' to mix it all up and make it a good yarn to boot. It was my first attempt at writing a book and it did not come easy. I relied on memory and input from close mates who served with me. As it was, I had to go to one of only three Aboriginal publishing houses to get my story published and I am thankful to the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) Press in Alice Springs for having the confidence in me and my writing ability. It is always easy with hindsight and I probably could have done some things differently but at the end of the day, I wrote it. All us boys who went to Vietnam had similar journeys but our experiences were all personal and slightly different for every one of us.
Writing this story sure opened up doors for me as a writer, giving me the opportunity to meet with other Aboriginal writers here in Australia as well as indigenous writers from the USA, Canada and Aotearoa (New Zealand).
I also had contact from Vietnam veterans and family members from all around the country thanking me for writing this book. They said it made them proud to be a Vietnam veteran, and family members said they learnt a lot about their veteran loved ones because of this story. On the whole, my little story has done a lot of good, going on the feedback I still get. On the other side I've copped a bit of the tall poppy stuff from some of my mates but that's OK too, that's the Australian way, isn't it.
My father was an activist and my greatest hero along with my cousin the late, great Charles Perkins, who was also a great influence on me. I was never going to just come home and spend my life sitting under a tree. Before and after writing my book, I was committed to trying to change things for the better for Aboriginal people and assisting fellow Vietnam veterans, black and white, in our fight to get adequate care from the Federal Government (those responsible for sending us to war in the first place) and non-government organisations like the RSL supposedly responsible for lobbying on behalf of all veterans.
I am helping some of the younger vets now too, those from the Gulf War and East Timor. These young fellas need our help and that of the Government so that they don't have to go through the same bullshit we had to, to get some real help with problems associated with military service for one's country. I teach painting to some of them in Adelaide where I live now. I took up painting as a hobby and found it the most relaxing, peaceful thing. I encourage other veterans to take it up as an alternative therapy and also to write their story, and it is pleasing to see that more and more are starting to write about the war and that era. I guess we all got sick about seeing and hearing America's version of the war.
Wife of Barry McDuff, 6th Battalion, RAR, 1969
It seems my life is epitomised by a Dickens quote: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I am an artist married to a Vietnam veteran. We married in 1971 less than two years after Barry returned home. If you were to ask how the whole Vietnam thing emerged in my artworks, then I couldn't rightly tell you, except to say that Barry's war service has been the underlying factor in our relationship always, and it appeared in my artworks two decades later.
I had realised that factors outside of our relationship were impacting on our marriage before our youngest daughter was killed at the end of 1984. Catherine was on a pedestrian crossing coming home from a swimming lesson when she was hit by a driver who failed to stop. Her sister Rebecca witnessed it, and Barry was present to lift Cath from the road. For him there were parallel incidents in his army life and it triggered Vietnam nightmares. We all coped with Cath's death as well as we could, but in a time when mourning for our daughter should have taken precedence, Barry was also dealing with all that had gone before. He tried to scramble threads of remorse and guilt and grief and stuff them away to carry on as a father and partner, but his health deteriorated and in 1989 he resigned from his position as Head of English at a local high school.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell you things aren't right, but I found that it takes an understanding psychiatrist to help put this into perspective. Dr Marsh May told me he was seeing an increasing number of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had never heard of it until then.
At the time, I was Head of Art at a Catholic College and was mounting exhibitions in Bundaberg, Brisbane and Cairns. In 1992 I took study leave to start postgraduate studies at the University of Tasmania. When my lecturer asked what my subject or area of work would be and what format it was going to take, it came quickly to mind. I wanted 22 etching plates, one for each year of marriage, about Barry's war but from my perspective - the wife and partner of a man disintegrating before my eyes. He had never wanted to go to war but was conscripted. While I have never been to war, I have experienced grief - not just with the loss of a child but also seeing how one man's life has been affected. This was the subject matter for my etchings, One Man's War.
I decided that the plates would be deliberately small because I felt they required the scale of photographs sent home or collected while overseas. They would show usual images such as men in the boozer, holding a weapon, leaving a helicopter, sitting on top of a tank; or home with his daughters pursuing his love for them, showing them the intricacies of a plant, or playing cards. Barry was like every man or woman who went to war - forgotten afterwards but even in 'normal' times replaying some nightmare in his head. We lived with Vietnam daily.
I used computer-generated imaging, which was in its infancy, and the more I played with the images on screen and moved them about, the more I realised that photographs remained central. The irony wasn't lost on me when I considered that afterwards everyone had tried to forget Vietnam and the veterans, but the images of war couldn't be erased. The other identifier placed on the etchings was the 'dog tag', the metaphor for servicemen and women - their identity and representing a life, lived.
After a small exhibition in Launceston, I had no expectation that One Man's War would have any other audience so I was pleasantly surprised when it joined the Dog Tag exhibition at the Brisbane City Hall Art Gallery and Museum and then was acquired by the Australian War Memorial. It has been a strange experience to have it as a bookmark for my artistic career and to be considered a 'war artist'. I have since been asked to contribute to or curate other exhibitions: Women at War and Impressions: Australians in Vietnam by the Australian War Memorial; Casula Powerhouse's Viet Nam Voices; and Bundaberg Art Centre's Treading on Eggshells, Threads that Bind, and Boom Baby Boom.
Through art, I portray what I see: the legacy of one man's war. He should have been free to grow old without that underlying factor and reminders that will plague him for the remainder of his life. Barry and other veterans have now reached that time when they are faced with their own mortality. For some, it doesn't come easily; others have weathered time remarkably well. Art offers a way of recording the veterans' lives and experiences and it has opened an area of experience and understanding that directly relates to my work.
No 1 Operational Support Unit and No 9 Squadron, RAAF, 1969-70
At nineteen when I went to Nam my mind seemed pure and clean
but at twenty when I came home again the things that I had seen!
Eighteen years have passed me by, and I still have those dreams.
The day I returned from Vietnam - how old I bloody seemed.
'An Ode for Mother', my first poem, from which this stanza is drawn, was written in 1988 and encapsulates my entire Vietnam service. 'Mother' was Duncan McNair, an Aussie chopper crewman killed just after I returned home. The poem remained hidden away with other pieces in my desk drawer and my heart until October 1992. It was then, at a reunion after dedication of the Vietnam veterans memorial in Canberra, I met Mother's wife, son and daughter and presented a dedicated copy to them.
The intensity of my service as a helicopter gunner and related traumatic incidents triggered psychological problems almost immediately upon my return from Vietnam. They were diagnosed as personality deficiencies, inability to cooperate with peers, and insubordination; manifest in temper tantrums, abusiveness to peers and superiors, and violence - thankfully upon myself rather than others. With a change of mustering from Airfield Defence Guard to Financial Account Clerk I was able to remove myself from many of the activities that triggered symptoms. But the memories remained and my reaction to them had a detrimental effect on my career until I separated from the RAAF in 1988.
I was writing poetry but Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) took over my life in September 1992. Incidents relating to my service became all consuming and to cope I developed the 'skill' to dissociate for days on end. This auto-mechanism saved my life (and perhaps others) on several occasions because otherwise the compulsion for violence was almost uncontrollable, and suicide became a singularly attractive and viable alternative to the pain of a 'worthless' life. During more than five years as an in-patient in psychiatric hospitals, I continued writing poems. Some were about Vietnam; some about hospitalisation and interaction with staff and fellow patients; most were angry at the insidious symptoms and effects of PTSD.
In September 1999, after purchasing a computer, poetry became a passion rather than 'merely' a means of venting feelings and frustrations. Writing, and seeing the words on screen and on paper, seemed to give substance and form to the miasma of disjointed thoughts that permeated my mind during every hour of every day - the nightmares, flashbacks, reminders, fear of being startled, frustration, impatience towards others, and the unreality of my predicament. Writing about emotions and senses enabled me to own them. In fact, it wasn't the act of writing so much as feedback from carers and particularly fellow veterans that empowered me to acknowledge the feelings as mine and to accept that I was not unique in the insecure world of painful guilt and self-doubt.
Poetry is probably the most valuable and effective tool in the arsenal of coping strategies I've developed to manage PTSD. I found my poetry to be the key to accepting that my experiences cannot be reversed but are a real and integral part of me. This has empowered me to make life-changing decisions, particularly whether or not to succumb to the innate selfishness of the illness (suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, et cetera) or to live a life that will always be difficult but nevertheless rewarding. Through poetry I have also expressed elusive emotions and memories that were so difficult to define during hundreds of hours of counselling sessions. As a result of sharing my poems with doctors, counsellors, and carers, they gained insight to more effectively assist me in achieving as productive and worthwhile a life as is in my power to attain.
In January 2001, I developed the International War Veterans Poetry Archives (IWVPA). The main aim is to provide a website where any person who experiences the effects or consequences of war may have an easily accessible forum to display their writings. I knew from experience that sharing and feedback could help in rekindling the light of hope in those who deemed themselves hopeless. There is no doubt that the effects of sharing poetry have been a major factor in my own ability to come to terms with my war service. Equally doubtless are the positive effects for other veterans and their families, friends, and supporters, many of whom have taken up the challenge to write their first words and have them displayed on the IWVPA.
But the bottom line will always remain that nothing - not poetry, not any amount of counselling, support, or hope - will work without the individual's absolute determination and desire to live. I know, as do those who know me, that I am a product of that determination!
To write about war is to acknowledge the fact
that silence about war is an insidious trap.
So write it all down for others to read
and read it out loud for others to heed!
Son of Rodney Stevens, 161 Independent Recce Flight, AAAvn, 1968-69
For many years my sister and I thought our childhood was unique. Our father was a Vietnam veteran and regular soldier. We were always on the move, making it difficult to set up ties and build friendships. Life was never a smooth run, as the Army's hard-hitting lifestyle of alcohol abuse played a large role. In the aftermath of a hard session at the boozer we often heard incoherent snippets about Vietnam. We never did find out what really went on 'in country' as we didn't have the courage to ask Dad when he was sober. Then in my early 20s my parents separated, and that part of our lives was shelved away in the back of my mind.
I was born less than a year after my father returned from Vietnam. He had changed, Mum said, almost a stranger. They had only been married eighteen months when he went to war, spending a lot of time apart even before he left, and now she had to start again. In the years that followed, Mum was always there to keep things together - like so many partners, the unsung hero of a serviceman's family.
I met my future wife, Rachael, around the time my parents went their separate ways. I found out that her father was also a Vietnam veteran and she too knew little of his war service. Her life was also moulded around his time away. Then in my early 30s my mother-in-law gave me a small ad from the paper about a VVCS seminar for sons and daughters of Vietnam veterans. I was sceptical at first, but it turned out to be a quite interesting and emotional night. They asked if we would be interested in becoming involved in a Sons and Daughters reference group as part of the Health and Wellbeing project.
Meeting these people in the group would be a pivotal time in my life. We would share so many emotional stories. This was only possible with the trusting environment that the coordinators created. A series of information nights was put forward after a survey of what the participants perceived would be of interest to the greater sons and daughters community. To promote the program our very astute coordinator started a newsletter - a glossy number that featured services offered, upcoming events, and stories from sons and daughters. He then floated the idea of handing it over to our group, and four of us said that we would love to give it a shot. From the beginning we were lucky, as we had a very committed group. We all had distinct personalities that brought a range of views, perspectives and strengths to the editing team. Indeed one particular member's previous writing and editorial talents would be the key to success. We had high hopes that the newsletter could be a communication tool to show sons and daughters that they were not alone, and that there was a support network. We also wanted to bridge the gap between veterans and their children by providing a common language.
It was pretty daunting at first but we settled on a structure with key elements including health and wellbeing articles, stories from sons and daughters, and a historical section. We wanted the content to be professional, and I have fond memories of editorial meetings that were very animated and quite a rollercoaster ride, like a mini therapy session, as each of us had diverse opinions on different subjects.
People often asked why we did it. I can only speak for myself but I am sure the others would say something similar. We wanted to try and make a difference, and perhaps even save lives (having been told that children of Vietnam veterans are three times more likely to suicide). Some of us found it a lot easier to write than others. I for one was never a natural but was willing to back up my promises with actions for this important cause.
The life of the newsletter spanned three years and eight editions before we decided to hang up the editors' hats. We were mentally exhausted and thought we should bring it to a close before the quality suffered. The last newsletter was posted out in May 2005 but the story did not end there, as positive feedback from our peers and the veteran community showed us the value of having a Sons and Daughters resource. The next logical step was to set up a website - another story that has now unfolded.
For me, participation in the newsletter meant finding wonderful new friends, so close I can share almost anything with them. They are like family. It also gave me the opportunity to ask my father some of those things I never could before. After his passing in May 2003 after an admirable fight, I found out that he was so proud of my involvement with the reference group and newsletter but could never put it into words himself.
8th Field Ambulance, RAAMC, 1970
When I discharged from the army, I gave away most of anything that reminded me of Vietnam. I wanted to get on with my life, forget the past, and not mention being a Vietnam veteran. Then came the Welcome Home in 1987 and it was a turning point in my life. I started to read about Vietnam, albeit American books, as there was not a great deal of Australian books, becoming interested in the history of the war.
A couple of years later, I was helping a history teacher, Chris Rhodes, whose masters thesis involved post-parade interviews with veterans. Chris asked if I could speak to his students about my time in Vietnam. Panic stations!!! I turned up with one page of typed notes, nervous to say the least. The talk went for 40 minutes, but it felt like a day, and in all honesty the only thing I remember is the applause. I then started speaking at other schools. At first, I was doing four or five a year, and then in 1993 I was invited to give a presentation at the History Teachers' Association of Victoria annual conference. This time, panic big time. Me, talking to history teachers - me, who left school at sixteen!! I was told not to worry about it, just pretend they were a class of mature age students, and remember that I knew my subject more than they did. From then, things started to gain momentum.
In 1995 I returned to Vietnam. It's something I had to do as part of the healing process. Not long after returning home I became TPI - prior to this, I was working night shift and slotting in schools where I could. Thank God I had the education activity to fall back on. Now I had time to develop ideas and concepts. As I got more requests for my presentation, 'Introduction to Vietnam through Poem and Song', my wife, Christine, helped out by getting me better organised and taking over the administration. Believe me, I needed that help!
I also realised that I had to get other veterans involved. It wasn't as easy as I thought. A lot came forward thinking it was just a matter of going into schools and talking about Vietnam - but they also had to talk about personal memories, and many dropped out. Ironically, the biggest attrition rate was with ex-teachers. Out of every 10 potential members, we retained about three. And some who turned up had ideas not appropriate for schools. One had a hidden agenda, venting his anger about DVA; another wanted to slam all politicians; and one wanted to give a slideshow, which I thought was a good idea except it turned out they were slides of brothels and prostitutes and that was all he wanted to talk about. (And this was at a private girls' school!!!)
Eventually, we pulled together a good team. The VVAA (Victorian Branch) then got behind us and we became the VVAA (Victoria) Education Team. We developed guidelines, revised our selection process, started workshops to enhance presentations, and experienced team members became mentors to new veterans. We also introduced a uniform (casual), and when State regulations were introduced we underwent police clearances and were issued with ID to enter schools. Importantly, small amounts of funding started to become available. (As the VVAA is a registered charity, we do not charge for our services, but we never say no to donations.)
We now average 140 schools a year, with a crew of 24. Teams consist of one to four veterans, depending on experience and school requirements. We go all over Victoria, reaching about 6300 students. Teachers tell us that while they can teach what they read out of books, we give students a firsthand account of what it was really like. When we go into schools, we access the classroom beforehand to set up visual and hands-on displays.
Our presentations range from the minimum two-period talk to 'incursions' where we spend a whole day running a complex program covering many aspects of the war. New teachers are surprised that we can keep students occupied for that long. Students like the face-to-face and group interaction and our informal approach - we use a lot of humour to get to the serious side. For example, if a Nasho and Reg are together, we send each other up, and students understand then that there were differences as well as similarities. We also provide speakers to groups such as Rotary, Lions and Probus, and we mount exhibitions at conferences, all of which gives us more exposure.
All of the veterans involved find that speaking about their experiences is therapeutic, and satisfying. They say the more you talk about it, the easier it becomes, but this activity can also be emotionally draining. The reaction from students is really great, as we step out of the history books into the classroom to get across the theme of our program - the futility of war, any war.
4th Battalion, RAR, 1971
I wanted to write my story about being a platoon commander in South Viet Nam when I was lying in my hospital bed back in Australia after being severely wounded in the battle at Nui Le in late September 1971. I wanted to have the book used as a 'reader' for young platoon commanders coming through the system and highlight the highs and lows, pitfalls and other traps for young players and talk about the stuff that isn't in the training manuals.
As it turned out I didn't get to write my autobiography In Good Company for another 15 years. When I did and it was published in 1987, it became a best seller and exceeded everyone's expectations, including those of my publisher. My fellow infantry officers often enquired as to who wrote it because it surprised them that I could produce a book that didn't require crayons to complete!
Publishing the autobiography changed my life. I was seen as someone who had a valued opinion, and I found that rather amusing as I had the same opinions before I wrote the book. But it opened doors and led me to what eventually became a full-time writing career in the latter stages of my working life. Being a published author with a serious publishing house like Allen & Unwin brought invitations to seminars at universities, literary festivals, guest speaker and afterdinner speaker roles and a host of minor events all revolving around the Second Indochina War. This sudden notoriety even saw me as a guest speaker on morning television news programs and speaking at events like Anzac Day and other ceremonial activities. I had credibility now because I had been there, done that, and had written a book about it.
What was most important for me though was that I suddenly had to learn what the damned war was all about. The conflict was enclosed in a shroud of myths, lies and legends and I needed to sort the wheat from the chaff very quickly in areas that I knew very little about. When I was conscripted I didn't even know which side of the equator Viet Nam was situated, and certainly knew very little about why the war was being waged, other than what we were being told by the government of the day. That is one of the things about a veteran author who pens military works - whether they be non-fiction or fiction - they have the credibility of having 'been there and done that', but just because one has been in combat doesn't necessarily make one an expert on all matters pertaining to the battlefield or to that particular conflict.
The success of In Good Company led me to researching more and to writing an oral history, Viet Nam Fragments. I initially thought I could go out and interview a bunch of army veterans and tell their story. It quickly became evident that I couldn't really tell the story I wanted without talking to people from Qantas, the RAN and RAAF. This started me off on a path of conducting oral histories that I used as a basis for telling the experiences of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and servicewomen in the war. I have been criticized by some in academia as writing 'pop history' because I concentrate on the personal side of war. Guilty as charged! But I do it because war affects the person so dramatically that I wanted to tell those who haven't been to war what the experience is like. I wanted to put the human face into the history pages. I also wanted to tell other veterans what the men and women in other services and units did because often they saw very little outside of their own unit when fighting in the war zone.
The experience of writing and recording oral histories has been a cathartic experience for me. I have listened to literally hundreds of veterans tell me their stories over the last 20 years. It has given me a deep insight into the many ways in which my fellow Australians approached their military service and how they have been affected since. You cannot throw a blanket over a group of veterans and say that they are this type of person or experienced that type of war. It was so diverse and it varied so much from year to year, and from unit to unit, that it is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. One thing I am sure about of this enormous mosaic of experiences though is that almost without exception, every Australian who served in the war zone went there with honourable intentions and was determined to do the best job that they could, and as so many have said to me, 'not let the team down'.
I have found the experience of writing and recording the experiences of those who served in this war to be an enlightening, soul-searching and at times enjoyable journey. I salute them all.
8th Battalion, RAR, 1969-70
I decided to write a unit history of 8RAR while at the 1987 'Welcome Home' parade - or to be more exact, at the battalion reunion that followed. Enjoying the comradeship of my fellow veterans, I wondered at the power of the cohesive forces that kept them together so long after the war. As we chatted and recalled our exploits, we talked about the young soldiers of today and how they might benefit from what we had learnt during our baptism of fire.
Of course, there were already many published unit histories relating to Vietnam. Unit histories and personal reflections dominate the war history market. As an historian with an interest in the war, I had studied many of the books then in print, but found most of them unsatisfying. To my taste, they tended to skirt the more painful issues, or if they mentioned them at all they did so briefly before quickly passing on to the next successful encounter with the enemy. That is not to say that they were bad books. In most cases their stated purpose was to provide members with a record of the unit and to celebrate their performance and many did this admirably. The painful issues that we all know happened in Vietnam (as in other wars) were rarely discussed but seemed to me the most interesting. Perhaps it was what they told me, by way of contrast, about our strengths: cohesion, determination, courage.
I was encouraged by other 8RAR veterans to 'tell it like it was'. Some unit histories are notable for the extent to which their narrative adheres to the chronology of the unit war diary. I felt that while it was important to remind unit members of what they did and how and when they did it, as recorded in the war diary, it was equally if not more important to place our battalion into the broader story of Australia's role in Vietnam for a wider audience.
The resulting book, Combat Battalion: The Eighth Battalion in Vietnam, was not chronological and instead tackled issues such as the enemy's mine warfare campaign in which they unequivocally beat us, friendly fire incidents that resulted in one way or another from bungles, the loss in some individuals of clear moral direction, and other less than favourable aspects of our tour. These were balanced by the battalion's unambiguous triumphs: the early recognition by our CO that security of the local population was the heart of the struggle, the planning of operations to emphasise ambushing of enemy forces, and the battle discipline and courage of the individual soldiers.
When the book was nearing publication I wondered how it would be received. I was particularly concerned about how 8RAR veterans would judge it and was surprised at the extent to which their opinions mattered to me. After publication some pointed out where I had got things wrong. Some errors were minor but others caused deep embarrassment; the most embarrassing was one in which, in different chapters, I had attributed the death of a soldier to two different causes. I was able to make corrections when the book was reprinted. These errors aside, the overwhelming response from 8RAR veterans was positive. Some wrote to say that they had learned for the first time about the broader issues surrounding events that they had been involved in. Others bought extra copies of the book to give to their wives and children because, they said, it explained what they had been through better than they could. A few wrote that they had been carrying a burden since the war and the book had lifted it from them.
The Army now recommends that the book be read by junior officers and NCOs. I was pleased with this because the passing on of our hard won understanding about the nature of war, and the soldiers' reactions to it, had been one of the reasons for writing the book.
I am pleased also that the unit history has led to further research into our experience. One of the research techniques I used for Combat Battalion was statistical analysis of 8RAR 'contacts' with the enemy. There is a tendency in writing about the Vietnam War, and other low intensity conflicts, to disregard apparently insignificant or inconclusive contacts and focus instead on 'big battles'. But with statistical analysis of the frequency and circumstances and results of contacts we can uncover broader patterns that lie beneath the seemingly impenetrable mass of these small, fleeting, inconclusive actions. Questions that go to the heart of the war can be answered: who was winning; did the frequency of contact increase or decrease; did the Australians become more or less effective? I'm now analysing contacts for the whole of the 1st Australian Task Force operations as part of a project called Understanding Low Intensity Conflict, using data from Vietnam and Confrontation, funded by the Australian Research Council. I hope that it will benefit young soldiers of today and the future.
7th Battalion, RAR, 1967-68
Soon after the opening of the Vietnam Memorial in Canberra I saw the benefits of an historical display. Bob Meehan and some other NSW veterans had fitted out the 'Nambus', a converted bus with memorabilia of the Vietnam War. I observed that people did want to know about this period and that veterans really wanted their stories and history to be told. For some time I had wanted to get rid of my own memorabilia but my wife Krishna, who has been with me since before Vietnam, felt it was important to keep. After discussions with veterans in the Yarra Valley, we decided to build a display trailer and show it around Victoria. This was the start of the Vietnam Veterans Museum.
Through the assistance of a Vietnam veteran employed by them, a transport company, E A Rocke, undertook to build a trailer, and with a friend and fellow veteran Laurie Dawson we made a unit that could open up to display memorabilia. Taking this around Victoria, it became apparent that several things were happening as a result. Vietnam veterans who had not 'come out' had a look when it arrived in their town and started talking to the veterans manning the display; and other local people realised that the Vietnam digger was no different to any other digger. Wherever we went there was healing between the veterans and the general public in towns. Whilst this was happening, veterans everywhere started to give us memorabilia.
In 1996 the Department of Veterans' Affairs asked if I would take the mobile museum around Australia in conjunction with a Vietnam veterans motorbike group. Krishna and I agreed on the understanding that DVA meet the fuel cost. As could be imagined, motorbikes tend to travel a little faster than a Land Rover towing a two-tonne square trailer. This was no more apparent than when driving into a headwind across the Nullarbor Plain, where the bikies had a ball travelling at about 150 kilometres per hour and we were flat out in third gear doing about 70 kilometres per hour. This meant that each day Krishna and I set out before dawn, got passed about midday by the bikies who had left two hours later, and arrived at the night stop an hour after them. We then had to set up and man the trailer for several hours whilst the others were lubricating dry throats.
Also, going down the Adelaide Hills was interesting as the Land Rover did not have brakes designed to handle the weight of the trailer and also had a tendency to jump out of third gear going downhill under pressure. Krishna holding the gear stick in while I tried to make the corners gave us some good moments.
As the donated memorabilia continued to mount, it was felt by our newly formed Museum Sub-Branch of the VVAA that we had an obligation to honour the veterans' intentions in giving us their gear. I might add that to form a sub-branch, under the VVAA constitution, we were required to have twelve members. As we could only scrape up eleven, subscriptions were paid for my dog Jack and he became a foundation member. He still thinks he owns the place!
Opening seven days a week and manned by volunteers consisting of veterans and associate members, it now has over 20,000 visitors a year and is a tourist attraction in itself. Also, with merchandising orders coming from interstate and overseas, and with educational visits and requests for information constantly reaching us, the demands on our volunteers and committee are large.
Several years ago we were faced with the twofold problem of not enough room to expand and the property being sold to new owners who wanted to develop an art studio. The Museum Sub-Branch decided to purchase land on Phillip Island and build a permanent museum. With a hard core of five committed members and working bees, with more than 4000 veterans around Australia purchasing fundraising bricks, and with government support, a $2 million dollar museum building was constructed. All this occurred whilst our volunteers maintained the existing leased museum building ahead of the new one opening. And we still have the old mobile museum to publicise our existence.
Whilst it is not something that I or Krishna ever set out to achieve, the dedication of our members and the support and trust of the veteran community has ensured that a lasting legacy of the true service given by Australians in Vietnam and the aftermath will be available to future generations.
Tony De Bont
55 Engineer Workshop and Park Squadron, RAE, and HQ Australian Forces Vietnam, 1970-71
My Vietnam experience was one year in a twenty-year military career, and whilst that year was different and at times difficult, when I returned home it was put behind me and I got on with the job. Then in 1983 I retired from the Army and was employed by a US-based computer company that used 'e-mail' for internal communications, and later they connected to the 'world wide web'. I found a discussion group called VWAR-L, mainly American academics who were either Vietnam veterans or students of the war, which intrigued me and stirred up memories. I guess that was the start of a path back to my unit.
Chatting to veterans on VWAR-L primed me for the 'Welcome Home' in 1987, but I chickened out and sat in my shed in front of the TV feeling pretty lousy for not having made it to Sydney. The next significant event was the dedication of the Vietnam memorial in Canberra in October 1992. I had no excuses this time as I was living at Gundaroo, about fifty kilometres away, and with a lot of urging from my daughter, Natalie, I was there for the Dawn Service and the gunfire breakfast on Reid Oval. I was wandering about when someone yelled out, 'Over here, boss!' Before long I was shaking hands, hugging and even shedding the odd tear as about 20 guys who had served with me came over and reintroduced themselves. We'd all changed, and of course I was no longer the OC, but after half an hour or so we were talking as if we'd had but a short lull in a conversation.
We didn't have a unit association then, but I was approached to help record the names and addresses of those who had served in 55 Advanced Engineer Stores Squadron or the retitled 55 Engineer Workshop and Park Squadron. I accepted without hesitation. My reason was largely guilt and shame. On returning from Vietnam, I had continued my career within the supportive environment of the Regular Army. Some years later, upon reflection, I felt that National Servicemen had not been treated so well. Their tour in Vietnam was their most significant contact with the Army, which then unceremoniously dumped them back into the civvy environment. I'm not a crusader, but I was an officer and I felt a sense of duty, and a desire to atone for the raw deal handed out to the Nashos.
Initially, I just recorded information gathered by the instigator, Ray Seymour.
Six months later we produced a mailing list and a newsletter run off on the office photocopier over the weekend and sent out to about 70 veterans. The 55 Newsletter which I compile and edit, with my wife Jenny as resident proofreader, is now a 28-32 page tabloid produced twice yearly for 351 veterans and some 'non-unit' members. We also instigated reunions every couple of years, at first around Anzac Day until it became clear that many of our members have commitments to their RSL or other organisations on significant veteran anniversaries. Our 2005 reunion was held away from the east coast, in Alice Springs, to ease the travel burden on our WA members. As the organiser it was a great relief and gave me the greatest sense of pride that it all came together, with 98 participants. It is an emotional trip to see men no longer in their prime reminiscing about their year or so in Vietnam. Many had not seen each other since they shared a hut in Vung Tau.
It is an honour and privilege to be able to provide a focus for our members throughout Australia and overseas. The group supports my efforts by providing articles and notes for publication and, generously, donations. I am rewarded one hundredfold for my contribution, with that phone call out of the blue, 'Just ringing to say thanks, got the newsletter today, read it from cover to cover!', or an email, 'Had to fight the missus to get to the paper, great job, thanks mate.' Many an old mate has been put in touch with another as a result of the newsletter. Sometimes it is an old photo or it might be a letter that triggers a reaction from one of the other members.
The thing is, we all arrived in Vietnam as individuals, sometimes two in the one week, and mostly we left the same way - which was great for farewell parties! After that, we were spread all over. I know of quite a few who may be the only Vietnam veteran in their district. They had no one to relate to or to air their concerns. Now they have a sense of belonging to something they can be proud of. There is a successful businessman in western New South Wales who keeps a copy of the latest The 55 Newsletter in his top draw. His pride and joy is to pull it out and say, 'I'm part of that mob!!'
1st Australian Reinforcement Unit and 5th Battalion, RAR, 1966-67
I found over the years that my particular problems, traumas and issues regarding Vietnam have not been and will not ever be understood by friends who were not there. I guess it is not fair to expect them to know what I experienced, then or since, and the effects of this on a veteran or partner. It has at times been difficult for my wife and I to socialise in a relaxed way at gatherings where there are not other veterans, so to find a veterans' group was for us a great relief. It was like being back with 'family'.
After my service in Vietnam, I stayed in the Australian Regular Army until retiring in 1986 and moving to Perth. I found that my qualifications and experience meant nothing in the civilian scheme of things. After a couple of months I found employment but missed the environment and comradeship of the services, but just had to get on with my new position in life. My wife and I had made great new friends through sports, and we still socialise with them and have many good times, but there was also something missing. For a while, whilst working at the Supreme Court I felt some relief as my colleagues included other Vietnam veterans, only we didn't see each other socially. Fortunately, I was serving with the Army Reserves and also the Cadets, which I am still involved with, which did make life a little easier as I still had that Army contact - only again, we did not mix socially.
In 2004 I came across an old friend who mentioned the Mandurah Murray Vietnam Veterans Group. They were based some 70 kilometres from where my wife and I were living at the time, but we decided to give it a go. Our introduction to the group was at Bruce Rock, which every year holds a Vietnam Veterans Weekend with approximately 1500 Vietnam veterans and their families from all over Western Australia and further afield making the pilgrimage. Activities organised by the town and through the veterans' groups actually can continue for five to seven days. It is a time to socialise and also to reflect, with a march through the town to the church to re-bless a window dedicated to Vietnam veterans. That first time was such a great feeling. Having found this new 'family', we joined there and then.
After Bruce Rock we attended a few functions organised by the group. I can assure you that there were, and continue to be many events and outings to choose from. Soon we were kayaking and bike riding with fellow veterans, partners and families, going to happy hours or movies, and taking trips away to places such as Albany, Molloy Island, Coral Bay and Broome, to name a few that we have been to with the group. There are many couples with caravans, while others stay in chalets or cabins - and it doesn't matter, we all travel together and socialise. I found that if we wanted to go on trips regularly that was great but if we didn't want to go, there were no questions asked, except perhaps to check that all's OK. Support is always there if needed, and that's really appreciated.
My wife also felt relief with the ladies of the group, with lunches held every second Tuesday of the month and some other outings. Our partners all seem to experience the same problems, but no one asked questions - everyone just seems to know what the other has been dealing with.
After about six months my wife and I decided that we wanted to be closer to the group, so in 2005 we sold our house at Kelmscott and moved to Mandurah - a great place, where we had always wanted to live, and now we have friends in the area as well - bonus! We have never regretted our move. I bike ride and kayak with fellow veterans every week, and my wife kayaks also. We always have something to occupy our time, either with the group or with our other friends that we have known for years now - it just seems that with the contact with veterans it is lot more relaxing and easier now.
The Mandurah Murray Vietnam Veterans Group has some 200 members including wives. It is special in the way they do not interfere with your life or live in each others' pockets, they are just there if you need them and understand. I ended up joining the committee to help in any way that I could, and now I am President. It's an honour to be in this position - not a chore. I hope the group will continue to grow and be helpful to other veterans and their partners. Having spent time without many veteran friends, I can highly recommend to veterans looking for comradeship and understanding a group like this, in their area. We intend to keep on having a great time and enjoying life together.
HMAS Stuart, 1967, 1968
The recognition of Vietnam logistic and support veterans came after a long and testing struggle. When one considers that it took 27 years from the first voyage in 1965 to the awarding of the Vietnam and Logistic Support Medal in 1992, one might say that the veterans were patient, but steely in their resolve. As a veteran of two logistic support voyages, I decided to become involved in our first national reunion held in 2004. I hoped that it might, in some way, help to further legitimise this worthy group.
Having been involved in several ex-military reunions before, I realised that a reunion is more than just an opportunity to relive one's youth. A reunion presents an occasion to meet former superior officers, equals and subordinates in a different environment to that which existed during the veterans' service careers; to reunite with old mates; rekindle memories; and confirm the camaraderie (mateship) born out of the reliance on, and trust in, each other, which is paramount in military service but seldom replicated in civilian life. For some, reunions are also part of a healing process in that they present a chance to rationalise or come to terms with the past. For many veterans, the reunion bolsters self-esteem because it confirms, to family and friends, that they really did do something important while in uniform, which for many is the pinnacle of their life.
Those who formed the organising committee, and our helpers, were all volunteers. Our involvement was not entered upon lightly as it required a very high level of endeavour and devotion to the task over a considerable period of time. I accepted the position of Chairman, although I had a degree of apprehension, as questions prompting doubt seemed endless: Would we get the numbers? Would we be able to pay for the booked venues?
Our first task was to develop a program, and book suitable venues. We had to make the event flow, while at the same time not crowding the days' activities. To say that we were tentative at the start is an understatement. I was constantly checking and re-checking things, ever fearful that our attempt to hold the reunion might fail and we would disappoint those who had booked.
Getting the message out was difficult. The logistic support groups are not high profile and perhaps not as well organised into associations as other groups. However, with approaches to ex-service associations, newspapers and word of mouth, we attracted interest. The well organised HMAS Sydney & Vietnam Logistic and Support Veterans Association (Victoria) were the best recruiters of attendees. Expressions of interest came flooding from others including nurses, entertainers, RAAF and Qantas crews, Department of Defence staff, journalists, Army observers, and of course the Navy, who represented the largest contingent. They were prepared to travel from around the country for the reunion.
Once we had a sizable attendance indicated it was incumbent upon us to put on a good show. Everyone at senior level approached came on board quickly. This included the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Chris Ritchie, and Repatriation Commissioner, Rear Admiral Simon Harrington, both Vietnam logistic support veterans. But we still had concerns. The financial commitment was a bit frightening, and we needed firm numbers before we could say 'let the show begin'. But it all came together.
Vietnam logistic and support veterans gathered in Brisbane in May 2004. The Lord Mayor of Brisbane hosted a reception at the Crest Hotel on the Friday evening, and almost 500 attended. Only at this point did we accept that we had pulled it off. The following day we had the march and a memorial service at the cenotaph - no dry eyes when a young female student from the Conservatorium sang Advance Australia Fair. Afterwards we went on a lunch cruise which was followed by the Dinner Dance at the Crest ballroom. Almost 400 sat for the dinner, with guests including the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence, Chief of Navy, Repatriation Commissioner, and others. Next day we assembled for a 60s/70s Concert which for many was the key point of the reunion. Too much food, wine and song was had by all, with a guest appearance by Little Pattie (Patricia Thompson), herself a logistic support veteran. Finally, on the Monday the Governor of Queensland unveiled a memorial plaque at Newstead Park. After lunch, we declared the reunion over.
The feeling in the air was one of absolute delight. My hand was sore from people shaking it. I would have to say that it was a greater success than I ever envisaged. For the organisers, it was reward enough that people could leave feeling that their military service was truly important and appreciated. When we packed up the last chair on the last day, I felt we had achieved something very worthwhile for our fellow veterans. Our group was proud, very pleased and very tired. I would do it again (wife permitting).
RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam, 1964-65; Transport Support Flight, RAAF, 1971-73
I have often reflected on, 'What makes a veteran?' The Concise Oxford Dictionary says a veteran is 'a person who has grown old in or had long experience of (esp, military) service or occupation ...' When I came back from Vietnam aged 23 I did not think of myself as a 'veteran'. Veterans were the old ex-servicemen and women from the First and Second World Wars - never young people.
JOHN 'GRUMPY' HOUGH
I never really thought about how those 'old' veterans were supported in a time of need or illness. I supposed that Veterans' Affairs did all of that and that Legacy was the main group that looked after the widows and families of those who died. In my ageing there has been a subtle evolvement concerning my understanding. Firstly, I realised that a veteran does not have to be old. I started seeing the effect of Vietnam on returning National Servicemen not long afterwards; there was something 'different' about them compared to those of the same age who had not experienced war. And in the RAAF there was a 'difference' about those who had flown in Vietnam. Only much later did I understand: they were young and they were veterans.
There was not really any government support offered to those just back from the war, and the RSL did not appear to be cognizant of the need for it either. But then many of us did not really know ourselves what, if any, support we needed. We just carried on. It was only after we all seemed 'older', at around 50, that Anzac Day reunions made us aware of what support was needed and that it was there all along - mates that help mates. We still had our careers to attend to, families to raise, retirement to plan for, et cetera, but there was a realisation of a continuing need to support each other. And thankfully, there was more official support. DVA seemed more proactive in helping veterans, and the Vietnam veteran community had lobbied successfully for the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service.
At the time of my retirement in 2004 I sensed a motivation to do something more towards mates that help mates. I checked with our RAAF Vietnam Association, which had joined with Blue Mountains Vietnam Vets, as to what I could do. I was advised of the real depth of need for support by our members, more so as time is catching up on us and there are health and other issues arising.
I offered my services as a Welfare Officer. Then I found out that one could be trained by DVA to support fellow veterans. What a revelation! I attended the courses and came face-to-face with the reality of how complex the pensions claim process can be - the operational and medical factors that need to apply for an illness or injury to be classed as 'war related', and how a veteran can be 'eligible and/or qualified'.
I started thinking: if this still seems complex to me after three days of a DVA course, how would a veteran (young or old) cope with putting a claim in when they are unwell and stressed out? I realised that trained and highly ethical volunteer Pension/Welfare Officers really are needed in ex-service organisations. We started to detail the demographics of our membership base and research trends in the type of support needed. We also recruited more Welfare Officers, established a support network for them, introduced induction training (on top of DVA training), and set about accrediting them in line with experience, level and currency of training. There has been a steady growth in demand for their services.
The two years of effort in coordinating our pension/welfare support system felt very rewarding. It seems to have created a feeling from our members that there is a group of great mates that help mates. What have I learned? Mainly, you can never pre-judge the type of support a veteran may need. I can get a call such as, 'My mate just got a TPI pension and he doesn't look half as bad as I am, so can you get me a TPI pension?' What does one say? You can try reasoning that claims are not that simple and each case is individual. He may not like hearing that but you have to remain ethical and you have to find a pathway to helping him. That involves gaining trust and calmly trying to work out what the real need is. This can be taxing. It sometimes makes me frustrated not just with the system but with the whole emotional complexity surrounding mates that help mates.
The release of the emotional and personal burden a veteran and their families have been carrying over a considerable period of angst, depression and illness makes the support our Welfare Officers provide all so important. When a veteran looks me in the eye and says, 'Thanks mate for your help', that makes it all worthwhile.
John 'Grumpy' Hough
HQ Australian Army Advisory Group Vietnam, 1972
In 1998, a fellow member of my 4-Wheel Drive (4WD) Club asked if I might run an off-road course for Vietnam veterans. I was unaware of the Vietnam Veterans Federation until then, but went along to see what it was all about and joined the SA Branch. I have never regretted it. A Veterans' Off Road Group was formed, which later set about building a 'bush retreat' for veterans and their families.
Our Off Road Group regularly heads out on 4WD trips, putting driving skills to the test - nothing silly, but something to enjoy as well as soaking up what this beautiful country has to offer, away from the bitumen. I think we all revel in the experiences and comradeship. The other great thing is that our partners have always been welcomed and they also train in four-wheel driving, allowing them to participate in all aspects of the trips, from skills testing to the social side.
I had an idea to develop a camping area. The group agreed that this would be good, as it would give us a place to 'escape' to and enjoy the isolation. Our first idea was to purchase land near Morgan, one of our 4WD training areas, but this proved to be financially beyond our reach so the idea was shelved. Later, one of our members, Phil Hawker, introduced me to Don Viney, a farmer at Alawoona, in the Murray Mallee, who allowed us to use part of his property for training in sand driving. Over the months that followed I got to know Don, and he got to know our members, and was pleased with their attitude, conduct and friendliness. It came up in conversation one day that I had been looking for land to camp on, and towards the end of 2002 Don invited me to look over some land that he had no use for, and said that we could make a camp there. I did not hesitate to accept his generous offer.
Work began slowly, with cutting a track through the scrub. Phil Hawker put us up at his farmhouse nearby, but as more people pitched in we realised that we needed facilities in the camping area. We could not keep running back to the farmhouse every time we needed to answer the call of nature! We formulated a plan for caravan and camping sites, and set about constructing a track circuit and a long drop toilet. We also purchased from Don Viney a small transportable shower unit, and with his assistance got it onto a trailer, moved it to what we thought was a likely position, set it onto foundations formed from sleepers, and there it stayed - we weren't going to try moving it again!
The construction effort, led by Ken Chester and Bob Haslett, both AATTV veterans, continued with members helping out whenever and however they could. We built a camp kitchen and generator shed, and again Don Viney came to the fore by helping us erect and fill a water tower, providing us with hard standing for our track, removing tonnes of rubble with his front-end loader, and assisting us in any other way possible. He spent many a night at the campfire with us. Meanwhile, our partners were toiling at ridding the area of tumbleweed, clearing rocks, digging trenches and carrying out a myriad other tasks. We were driven by a sense of purpose that for many of us had been missing, and got a huge sense of achievement with the completion of tasks. Despite the occasional clash of egos and the odd harsh word here and there, the work was completed without any major incidents, which is testament to the spirit of fellowship engendered by this project.
We decided that our retreat should have a name, and after much thought agreed to honour one of the current breed of veterans (hoping also that this might entice them into making use of the camp). Bob and Jan Russell are members of the VVF, and their son, Sergeant Andrew Russell, Special Air Service Regiment, was the only Australian killed in the first deployment of troops to Afghanistan. I approached Bob, Jan and Drew's widow Kylie for permission to call it Camp Andrew Russell. Permission was given, and we built a memorial, with a suitable rock to hold a plaque. More than 100 people attended our dedication ceremony on 28 October 2005 with Bob and Jan guests of honour, and Kylie represented.
We put our heart and soul into the bush retreat at Alawoona, and we love it. Veterans use it as a place to reflect on fallen comrades and past deeds, to join with old and new friends in celebration of the fact that they are still here, and to honour the support of their partners. I sincerely believe that the healing process is helped along in this place of peace. To what extent I don't know, because everyone is so relaxed there it is hard to tell.
No 9 Squadron, RAAF, 1969-70
It was early 2001 when our old Hoover washing machine spat the dummy. I really didn't want to know about it, and nearly threw the old thing out. Instead I placed it in the shed and thought, 'Well, one day I may get around to fixing it.' I paid $850.00 for a new washing machine which didn't do as good a job as the old one. So it was back into the shed and I did fix the old one, and would you believe it cost me the grand sum of $60.00! Needless to say I was livid with myself. Now I had two washing machines - what was I going to do with one of them? This dilemma led to establishing our RAAF Vietnam Veterans' Association of WA Men's Shed.
I was always good with my hands. After entering the RAAF in 1960 I undertook an engines apprenticeship, and that saw me through until a helicopter crewman's course in 1968 before finding myself in Vietnam. I was single, young and pretty well carefree, so what confronted me was mostly a sense of adventure. This was put to somewhat of a halt 11 days into my tour, when we were shot up while passing close to the Nui Dinh hills.
After my discharge in 1980 I avoided military involvement including contact with my past friends. I owned a quite successful building renovation and maintenance business and all was well until 1993 when, in the space of approximately two weeks, I felt there was something drastically wrong. I didn't want to do things, didn't want to answer the phone, was tending to shun work, hiding and sleeping on my boat mid-afternoon. I became agitated and aggressive and wanted to just 'not go on'. I hid all of this (or thought I did) from my family, friends and customers. It went on until 1996 when I was invited to a meeting to start up a RAAF Vietnam Veterans' Association in Perth. A friend of long standing saw the poor condition I was in and suggested I see a particular doctor. It took some time to overcome the 'male thing' of not wanting to seek help for what appeared to me to be a 'something wrong in the head' problem.
Back to that old washing machine. The next week, I was going to visit my brother when I came across several old washing machines that had been thrown out. I had already fixed one, so what about these? Lo and behold, next thing I was racing home for the trailer and came back and picked up three of them.
I would say it cost me a total of around $120.00 to have them all going like 'new'. But what was I going to do with them? The initial thought was to sell them, but this became too hard. I mentioned it to a few friends, and asked would they like to take part in repairing things and giving them to charity. We called our project 'RAAF Vietnam Veterans of WA Washing Machines to East Timor'. East Timor was really hurting at this time, and the Lions Club of Rockingham arranged to send our donations by container free of charge.
One thing led to another and our little group moved into repairing bikes and anything else we could get our hands on. A Veterans' Affairs grant enabled us to purchase tools and a trailer - we were getting serious now! Then we found a 'new direction' after hearing that Parkerville Children's Home required lawnmowers not only to mow their huge grounds but to also teach the workings to their charges.
We now have up to 14 men arriving at my home workshop each Tuesday and Friday mornings except for public and school holidays. We endeavour to forget our own problems and make very welcome anyone who cares to join us. As well as ex-RAAF we have two civilians and two Army types. It is amazing to see the smile on a chap's face after he has put something together and it actually works! The laughs and antics we all get up to on occasions are well rewarded with getting it back in your own face. That's what it's all about - laughter is the best medicine, they say. The workshop has become a known meeting place for veterans, so others call in for a coffee and chat.
The amazing thing is that our Men's Shed started from a whim of repairing a broken down old washing machine. It has turned out to be veterans helping fellow veterans regain their confidence, self-esteem and purpose of belonging, and at the same time giving something back to the community. All in all, I have had great satisfaction and healing from this project. I am immensely proud to be part of it and the veteran scene in general again, after shunning it for all those years. The old adage, 'Once a military man, always a military man', seems true.
2nd Battalion, RAR, 1967
1990. The departure lounge upstairs at Thon Son Nhat Airport, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), hadn't changed in 23 years. Still the dark wood panelling, dirty windows and less-than-friendly staff. It reminded me of the last time I departed Vietnam in 1967 with a distinct sour taste in my mouth, not so much from the warm Coke but the fact I had been ripped off again - this time by the airport bar in having to pay 25P (about 25 cents) for the drink when the going price outside was 10P!
1990 was, to quote my brother-in-law, Terry Graham, a 'formative year'. Terry had spoken of his Vietnam service as a 'formative experience' - one that changed his life, as the war did many lives. In my case, 23 years after being in country, after three weeks back I had a hollow, disillusioned and regretful feeling of remorse. Vietnam had changed. It had become poorer, with more street people than in a Rio Carnival, war and bomb damage, infrastructure broken down, water and electricity services spasmodic in delivery, and Speedwell (bicycle) the major form of transport.
Evident throughout Vietnam were active SAM (surface-to-air) missile sites, and the army patrolled the streets, fully armed and in section strength, and not averse to shaking down the odd foreigner who may have strayed alone late at night. Ho Chi Minh City had three restaurants serving Western fare and you could place an even money bet that you would or wouldn't die from eating it. At the best pub, The Continental of The Quiet American fame, a 'filet Minong' was $2; and at The Majestic dance girls would still partner you in a tango for 20 cents. But the Soviet Union had collapsed, and with it aid to Vietnam, and in his wisdom Doi Moi decreed that Vietnam would embrace the West - at least economically, yet dedicated to holding onto the reigns of Communism over the people.
That 1990 flight out to Bangkok was the toughest 90 minutes of my recent life's experiences. What to do about Vietnam? My personal view was that the West had destroyed Vietnam. Unfortunately, due to monumental lies and a dictate prescribed by the US Government, Australia had been part of the problem. Could a baggy arse digger make a difference? I thought so and coined the title AVVRG, Australian Veterans' Vietnam Reconstruction Group. My travelling companion stated, 'I wish you luck', and ordered another beer from the hostess.
Back home, I drafted the first of many proposals to the government of the old Phuc Thuy province. Due to mismanagement, loss of proposals, redistribution of boundaries, deaths of senior officials, and influence of Vietnamese veterans, it took until August 1994 for approval for the AVVRG to offer aid to be granted. An invitation was extended to me to return and I walked into a conference room in Baria to face 23 government officials all keen to find out what the AVVRG could do. At that point, the AVVRG was me! Shell shock set in. After three days of negotiations, dinners and far too much obligatory rice wine, a memorandum of understanding was signed.
Back in Australia, an ad placed in the local press drew 40 people to a meeting on the Sunshine Coast. The AVVRG was born. An executive was elected, the constitution accepted and we set about raising cash for the first project, the rebuilding of the primary school in Hoa Long. Hoa Long had been a sore point for Australian forces - a VC stronghold, and no amount of cordon-and-searches discouraged them. Eventually, our ambushes decimated their numbers. So there was no better place to start aid ... the irony of it all!
In twelve years, the AVVRG has delivered in excess of one million dollars in direct aid to the province. The group is purely voluntary and our members include veterans, family members and other people interested in addressing problems in Vietnam. Those who travel with us on projects do so at their own expense. In 2006 alone, some 53 nurses in AVVRG Medical Teams will have provided services to seven hospitals including in Ho Chi Minh City, Baria and Vung Tau, at their own expense. A major project has been the Long Tan Community Health Aid Project with the installation of 300 septic toilets, a dental clinic, physiotherapy unit, community health education program and fluoride treatment for thousands of schoolchildren in Long Tan. Thanks to AusAid, the Australian Consul-General's Direct Aid Program fund, the Premier's Department in Queensland, the West Australian RAR Association and many other ex-service organisations and also donations from private individuals and AVVRG members, Long Tan will finally receive the aid that it has for so long needed. Will it put the ghosts to rest? Probably not. Not for us, not for them.
After some 75 jobs in my life, three broken marriages and three delightful kids, one to a Vietnamese, maybe with this work I will find peace, maybe not.
1st Field Squadron, RAE, 1968-69
Returning to Tasmania in October 1969 I felt as if I wanted to forget all about the war and tried to block it out of my life. That's pretty hard to do when you are fuelled with an anger that won't go away no matter how much alcohol you drink, and with long nights of recurring dreams of the war. In spite of the inner turmoil, I married and had two children and tried to live a 'normal' life. I didn't have a lot of contact with my army mates until the early 1980s, and around the same time my wife Merle and I became members of a local peace group. Until then I had mainly thought of conflict from the viewpoint of a soldier but I then also began looking at it from another perspective.
In Vietnam I was a combat engineer (sapper) working mostly with the 4th and 6th (Anzac) Battalions - my father also was a sapper with the 9th Division in North Africa but he was shot and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. I was luckier, physically. Part of my duty was to locate mines and booby traps and disarm them. Mine warfare was an important part of the enemy's strategy, and Vietcong sappers were resourceful, making anti-personnel and anti-tank mines or lifting our mines and replanting them. It was demoralising to see horrific injuries and loss of life inflicted on my mates because of them.
After we joined the peace group, I looked more closely at issues surrounding the use of landmines. Once used as a tactical, defensive weapon, I found that they were now used to terrorise civilians. I was shocked to learn that across 90 countries, an estimated 60-70 million landmines were in the ground, causing countless deaths and injuries. In 2000, I was asked to speak about my experience in Vietnam at a meeting for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. I decided there and then that I wanted to try and help people living with the terror of landmines. I contacted other Vietnam veterans, and after several meetings, myself and others decided to form a group with the purpose of assisting communities, in any country, affected. Colonel Alex 'Sandy' MacGregor MC, a former OC of 3 Field Troop, RAE, agreed to be our patron.
Ahead of launching the Mines, Victims and Clearance Trust (MiVAC) at the Hobart Town Hall in March 2002, I was nervous, wondering how people would react to what we were trying to achieve. I needn't have worried as interest and support was overwhelming. We attracted members from all walks of life - Vietnam veterans and also 'ordinary' folk touched by the landmine issue and wanting to help. MiVAC is staffed by volunteers, and I am amazed that whenever we need a person with particular skills for a job, they just turn up. A young Irish backpacker working for my son on the farm turned out to be a graphic artist, and designed the logo. A friend who is a wizard with computers said he had little money to spare but could put together a website for us.
MiVAC has members in every state of Australia, and recently some Vietnam veterans in Stoneham, Massachusetts, USA, formed a Chapter. Our members devote spare time to raising the issue of landmines by speaking at schools and community groups, and fundraising. Working in Cambodia and Sri Lanka we have provided several communities with practical help, including wells for fresh drinking water, storage jars, tools, wheelchairs, a school and a fence around the perimeter of a school bordering a minefield. We are also rebuilding an orphanage in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, destroyed by the tsunami in December 2004, which is home to children orphaned by the ongoing conflict.
Like many other Nashos I was in Vietnam for one year. Images and memories have stayed with me. The anger I felt at issues surrounding Australia's involvement in the war still surfaces sometimes, but it is being replaced now with a sense of achievement. For years I carried a dream of being able to help with the landmine problem but I didn't know how to fulfil that dream. Now I look back at projects our group have been able to complete and see photographs of children with toothy grins standing around a well supplied by us, and able to spend their days at school instead of carrying water containers for several kilometres daily, in mined areas. It has made a difference to their lives as well as mine.
I was one of the more fortunate soldiers who came back from Vietnam, had children, and now has grandchildren. I felt that I needed to give something back and now I feel satisfied that I am part of a group working to change lives for the better. A quote that means a lot to me is this one from Martin Luther King: 'Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.'
Sister of Allan Hansen, 1st Battalion, RAR, 1965
The catalyst of healing came one Tuesday when I collected the mail and there was an envelope. No return address. I did not know the writing. On opening it I found two photos of my brother Allan. No letter or note, but the pain that came with that envelope was crushing. I have always been a sensitive creature, often sensing things before they happen - 'a bit of a fey soul', some older folk would say. The pain in this envelope was unlike anything sensed before.
My brother was killed in Vietnam on 25 October 1965. Our journey really started around 15 years earlier when I was three. Our parents went through a bitter divorce (or so I was told) and our father got custody of the children. He put me into foster care and kept the boys, as they were older. Allan was seven or eight years older than me. He would have been around ten and I think fairly determined to see me as much as he was able. Always the peacemaker! So of course he became my champion, my hero, my everything, even though I only saw him when he could catch a bus or tram and come to see me, and that did not seem very much to a little girl.
We grew older and apart but still the bond was there. When he joined the Army, my joke was that I would join the air force when I was old enough. We were so confident with life. Then came Vietnam. He came to see me just before his battalion sailed. We thought it a great adventure, as young folk do - no thought of anything but dreams and new lands to explore. Then within a few months, without warning, my world ended.
After the funeral I sort of put it away in the back of my mind. I worked, made friends, but kept the anguish hidden. I had only memories - no photographs. Then, in 2004, I mentioned to my friend Lynne a very abridged version of my history. She said I should try to get a picture so that my sons could learn about Allan. Someone would have one, surely! She found 'Charlie' Company, 1RAR on the internet and saw Allan's name in their honour roll.
An email or two later I was put in touch with John McNamara who kindly sent some photos and a lovely letter. Imagine, I had not seen Allan's face for nearly 40 years and there he was. We had all grown older, but he was eternally young. And how lovely to read how well they thought of him. Next I was introduced to John Arnold, who was with Allan when he was killed. All these years I had pictured him lying dead in the bush, alone. Then to find that he was not alone, he was with his mates, his 'brothers'. And all that time John had wanted to tell his story to a family member, never being able to find anyone.
Then that envelope, anonymous, arrived. Its pain remained with me so next morning I went to see a friend and colleague who was also a priest. Words failed me, tears came and I handed him the envelope. He held it in his hands, firmly, and prayed. We sat for a while, and he suggested I go home and write my feelings down. I wrote a poem ... to myself, to Allan's memory, to his army mates, to the kind person who sent the photos, and to my dear friend Lynne (tragically, killed in a car accident). I have lost so much, but I have found that others lost so much more.
You went full of cheer to a war torn land
a great adventure we thought you and I,
I waved you off and you were gone -
you wrote, I read the letters fond ...
I did not see the coming dread,
and then no more would letters come,
the adventure lasted a very short time,
you were gone, you were not mine.
I tried to weep but anger came
my world was truly not the same.
For all these years my secret kept
to all but a few who guessed, I suspect,
and they kept quiet for my sake
but deep inside my heart would break
of emptiness until there came
a kindred spirit leading me on
to better things and then beyond -
to pray for you and let you rest
with all your mates who loved you best.
Some of the men who did come home
tired and sick, they did but roam
an empty land no love for them
with sadness deep inside their souls
their heartbroken stories yet to be told ...
but worst of all their mates were gone.
So we pray for them for peace of mind
O gentle angel please be kind
give them love and company
respect and treat them tenderly.
Mary enfold them in your cloak
and pray to the Lord for healing and hope.
Wife of Tony Stancombe, 21 Engineer Support Troop, RAE, 1969-70
Until September 2002, I had no idea what impact Vietnam had had on my husband Tony, our relationship and our family. Tony had never wanted to discuss that he had issues as a result of his time there. I often queried this but his standard answer was, 'No, I don't have any issues. Nothing happened. I'm fine.' Tony is a loving and caring person. He worked hard, in fact was a workaholic. But there was another side to him - withdrawn, moody, silent, indecisive. I knew something was wrong, but thought it was just me. I adjusted to his mood swings and strange behaviours, which I have since discovered is what all veterans' wives do.
My youngest son, Jason, who had left home, wanted to talk with me about his relationship with his father. He was uncomfortable visiting us, and didn't want to come over any more. He truly believed that Tony was not interested in him. 'Dad only talks about what he knows. He doesn't seem to be able to talk with me. It has to be done Dad's way!' He would leave our home depressed and sad. Incidents came flooding back and I thought maybe there was more to it than we realised. Maybe Tony had suffered, maybe there was something that we didn't know about. Again I had to put it out of my mind as Tony would not discuss the issue. And how was I meant to tell him that his son didn't want to visit any more?
Close friends stopped in. Rob and Tony had served together in Vietnam. We always caught up with Rob and Gae whenever we were in Western Australia or if they were visiting Victoria. Rob had noticed a big change in Tony. He saw things that I didn't. Yet again I dismissed them. When they left, they left a copy of a small book, I Thought It Was Just Me, printed by the VVCS. I read it and bells started ringing. It wasn't 'me' after all!
I needed to know what was wrong with our family. Of course Tony didn't want to talk about it. I went off to work, but had left the book on the coffee table and thought no more of it. Then Tony rang me to tell me he had just been talking to a VVCS counsellor for over two hours. I was, to say the least, absolutely speechless.
One of the hardest things for Tony was to speak to our boys about it. He asked if they would attend a family counselling session. Jason was very happy to but our eldest son, Adam, did not want to be involved; eventually after several discussions with a counsellor over the phone he agreed to come. We were all anxious: what was going to be said, how would Dad react, would it be the same as always? It was hard for Tony, but he started telling us about his memories and fears. We were in a circle facing each other. The boys' body language said it all. They shifted their positions away from Tony and me, but after Tony spoke they turned back towards him. The dark clouds had lifted from their shoulders.
My husband and I attended counselling together for about another 18 months. We were also invited to participate in a week-long counselling session in the beautiful surrounds of the Yarra Valley with six other couples going through the same process. We discussed all sorts of issues. Obviously, it was hard to open up and show your true feelings with people you had only just met, but with the expert help of the VVCS team we did so. It was the beginning of the next chapter of our lives together as partners and not as individuals together. We still have contact with the lovely people we met in this group.
I also became involved in a Veterans' Wives Group. They made me feel very welcome and for this I am truly grateful. They shared their stories and listened to me and have supported me. If you are having a bad day they understand, no words need to be spoken. They feel what I feel. We all have come such a long way, and we all know to take each day as it comes. We know that we have support if we need it.
This journey of healing is making a difference. Our sons are thrilled that Dad has 'come out'. My eldest son Adam has lost the 'chip' off his shoulder; he had been our troublesome child, our angry and sad child, and always believed that he was the one who caused Tony to be so angry. As for Jason, he and Tony can now have a conversation with no compromises. We have a long way to go, but we have started the journey together. I am so proud of Tony for the changes he has made and continues to make.
1st Australian Reinforcement Unit, 7th Battalion, RAR, and HQ 1st Australian Logistic Support Group, 1970-71
A motorcycle accident in 1994 changed my life dramatically. Lying on a bush track with a broken leg for some hours, unable to move, brought back strong memories of Viet Nam. The heat, smells, tensions and sounds made me feel like I was back over there. Spending time in an all-male hospital ward was like visiting wounded mates. It was a trying time for the family and myself.
I enlisted in the Australian Regular Army in August 1969, just after man walked on the moon. I loved the training and the army life. After arriving at Nui Dat on 10 June 1970 we did three weeks acclimatisation while awaiting a posting to a battalion, and eventually I was sent to Reconnaissance Platoon, Support Company, 7th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment. The platoon had taken casualties and was under strength so five replacements were flown in.
They had lost two forward scouts so Pat Kelly and I were given that job. We went through a steep learning curve and it was tough, although it must have been tough on the whole platoon with someone new out front. After three months of patrols, I was downgraded medically and moved to D & E (Defence and Employment) Platoon of the 1st Australian Logistic Support Group at Vung Tau. It was 5-star accommodation in comparison to the bush.
On return to Sydney in the early hours of 11 June '71 we were informed that we had to remove our uniform before leaving the airport and find our own accommodation for the remainder of the night. It wasn't the welcome home that we had expected. A week later and it was off to the pub for a few drinks with friends. It didn't take long for anti-war protesters to target me. It resulted in a quick trip to the hospital for them and a lot of explaining to the sympathetic police for me. I learned quickly that to be a Viet Nam veteran in Melbourne did not necessarily mean accolades and admiration.
The next 12 months were very difficult for my family and me. I had a lot of trouble sleeping, and suffered with stomach pains, weight loss and hyperalertness. I moved silently around the house scaring the life out of the family, never talking above a whisper. Eventually I decided to go back to school and finish off my half-completed apprenticeship in chair and couch and cabinet making. Nights were spent studying until 3.00 or 4.00 am, which suited me as I couldn't sleep. I then worked in industry before deciding that I wanted a career move to teaching, and it was back to night school in 1975 to upgrade my qualifications. Things were very busy over the next few years teaching, raising a young family and volunteering my services to a local rescue unit. I had married in May 1973 to a girl I had been going out with prior to Viet Nam and who had written to me whilst in country. Kaye noticed a change in me after coming home, and not all of it to the better.
Following my motorcycle accident in 1994, over the next few months my sleeping patterns became worse and I lost my temper easily. This didn't seem to improve over the next few years even though I had plenty of medical intervention. In 1997 my doctors decided that I should cease work. This was not what I wanted as I thought I was okay, however they made it clear that my health would continue to deteriorate if I continued working. I went through a period of adjustment to being a TPI veteran along with the substantial drop in salary. The VVCS and medical profession provided assistance, and the help of other veterans was invaluable and they were able to warn me of some of the emotional problems I was to face. But I feel that none of this outside support would have got me through such a difficult time had I not had the support of my wife, family and friends.
Having two daughters still living at home meant some adjustment had to be made. For them, having a father who experienced significant sleeping problems and, at times, found it difficult maintaining control over his temper made it hard. I have kept busy doing some welfare work for veterans and being a member of the Vietnam Veterans Education Team, and my health, though not perfect, is improved. Being able to talk to students about my experiences in Viet Nam has been a cathartic experience and has enabled me to think through some of the events that took place and come to some resolution. I will continue to do volunteer work with veterans and be a member of the educational team. With the continued support of family, friends, veterans and the medical profession network I feel much better, about myself and my ability to cope with my feelings about my time in Viet Nam.
3rd Cavalry Regiment, RAAC, 1970-71
I didn't have anything to do with Vietnam veterans until my former wife suggested - then insisted - I go to the Welcome Home in 1987. She said it would give me the chance to meet up with old mates and relive old times. I suppose it was the start of the healing process for me.
After that, I became heavily involved in the NT Branch of the VVAA, becoming President in 1993 on the untimely death of Steve Poulter. We knew each other from school days but had not realised our common experience until joining the Association. Many veterans didn't mention it. The public did not accept the war or us, and some old diggers referred to it as a 'police action' and said we weren't veterans.
I was conscripted in 1969 and extended my national service by eight months to be able to complete my tour in Vietnam. I learnt about survival and discipline and comradeship and how to be independent and work in a team. I returned to Darwin and joined the NT Public Service and in 1974 the Police - like the army, a big family with camaraderie. In 1997, the NT Police, Fire and Emergency Services published an edition of The Drum featuring 22 Vietnam veteran members. About four are left and our retirements are looming.
The 3rd Cavalry Regiment Association has held a reunion every five years since the Welcome Home and Vietnam Memorial dedication, which I attended. It is great to catch up with old mates and maintain ties. Old faces keep appearing and most of them say they should have come out earlier. I know that quite a few are better off for attending. It is the best medicine in the world. During our 2002 reunion we and the 1st Armoured Regiment marched in Perth on Anzac Day; the sight of 500 'Black Hats' marching was awesome and the crowd reception was fantastic. Words of encouragement came from everywhere, with kids wanting to touch our hands and people holding signs saying 'Thank You' and 'Welcome Home'. It warmed the heart and brought tears to the eyes. It was as good as the Welcome Home. I am proud to be identified as a Vietnam veteran and to wear my medals.
When our troops went to East Timor, I was determined to see that they received a 'welcome home'. When General Cosgrove arrived back in Darwin, our members and families attended the Fort Hill Wharf with the Association banner.
We waited in pouring rain and raging winds, and after stepping off the gangway he came over and talked with us. It was flashed around Australia by the media and after that our troops were welcomed home in style. We do the same for those back from Iraq. It is good to sit down with them later and talk about experiences. It's what veterans do.
In 2000 I participated in a Stories Beyond Vietnam program with the VVCS, and five of us published our stories, Rice Paddies and Rocket Fire. I have since participated in the Sons and Daughters program. It amazes me the number of veterans who do not tell their children of their experiences - like my grandfather did not talk about his war and my father only started telling of his shortly before he died in 2001. I lost a good mate with his death. A lot of my Vietnam mates have passed on also, and more are ill, and each one tears a little bit more from you.
I am now in a wonderful relationship with Michelle who is a devoted, understanding and loving partner and I look forward to my retirement in the near future, devoting more time to family and watching my grandchildren grow.
On my 50th birthday in 1998, my family, especially my children, penned a poem. When my son read it out, I cried because it made me realise how much my family loved and supported me. I hope that other veterans reading these words know that they are not alone.
Dad the Soldier
So many verses - about Vietnam Penned by those soldiers, Who fought for their fellow man.
But not one from you Dad So now it's our turn, For you - we've turned our hand.
A soldier from the very start A family tradition, You needed to play your part.
Up there you went - with honour and pride
The Australian Spirit,
You took in your stride.
Your tour was over at the end of one year
And home you came,
With hidden memories and a silent tear.
But the conflict's not over and nor is the grief
For your fellow veterans,
You still fight - to bring life's relief.
As your family we may never know
What it is that you share,
With those whom you served so long ago.
But Dad you can stand high and proud to us
And our generation
As a soldier you served your family and our Nation.
And last but not least - it's sad but true
You're so damn lucky to have us
Tonight - the shout is on you!!!
1st Battalion, RAR, 1968-69
With the Blue Danube waltz blasting away on the Qantas 707 military charter I touched down, as a 2nd Lieutenant, at Saigon in early 1968, and departed about a year later wiser and wearier but again in bizarre circumstances, sipping rum and coke on HMAS Sydney. In between I discovered that the Vietnam War had its lighter comical moments against the odds - 'MASH moments' - but mega strategic mistakes totally overwhelmed the odd microburst of humour.
One MASH moment was when the 1RAR lines were going through a rare zero alcohol phase. A Company Sergeant-Major (CSM), who shall remain nameless, used to take a narrow path through the wire to the aviation unit next door, where beer was available. One night, some resourceful corporals waited until he had gone next door and rigged the pathway with a series of trip flares and a couple of jumping jack mock grenades, which still made a loud bang when triggered. Needless to say, around midnight the CSM came wandering back when all hell broke loose - off went the flares, the grenades, the challenge of the sentries, leaving the CSM yelling, 'Don't shoot, don't shoot! It's the CSM on inspection rounds!' He never ventured down that pathway again!
The war is better remembered for strategic mistakes and falsified official reporting. The frequent falsification of body counts from engagements with the enemy by some, especially in relation to US Army action reports, meant operational briefings were somewhat misleading. But it was at the highest headquarter level of them all, at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, where some truly big mistakes were made from a very early stage. There was no lack of will by the top brass to keep abreast of what was happening; Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense, would often visit Vietnam, and on other occasions he met General William Westmoreland and other generals halfway at Hawaii. Sadly, as McNamara wrote years later, he knew strategic mistakes were being made quite early in the 1960s, yet allowed the US war agenda to roll on resulting in many extra deaths of American, South Vietnamese, Thai, South Korean, New Zealand and Australian service personnel.
The biggest mistake was the failure to go about a fair dinkum approach of boosting the South Vietnamese Army in the early stages, giving them a fair allocation of helicopters and artillery and the like, and above all else comprehensive training. Subsequently, after the Tet Offensive in 1968 and after President Nixon replaced President Johnson in early 1969, the catch-cry went up that 'Vietnamisation would turn things around' and a huge effort was attempted, finally, to boost the South Vietnamese Army. It was too little, too late.
And so, the military forces of North Vietnam that had next to zero airpower and seapower won a solid victory in 1975, sweeping south and capturing Saigon. This led to the incredible scenes of a rushed helicopter withdrawal from the roof of the US Embassy to aircraft carriers, where helicopters were tipped into the sea to make way for more to land. Three Australian Members of Parliament, on a last-minute fact-finding tour, nearly left their run too late when they visited Saigon in the closing days. Andrew Peacock, Ian Sinclair and John Sullivan with Adrian Lynch even made it into the outgoing South Vietnam President's office, observing suitcases stuffed with gold. They escaped in the nick of time, accurately predicting Saigon's imminent fall.
It goes without saying that Vietnam had a big impact on the lives of thousands of regulars and conscripts who served during the various phases of the war, giving their all in the best traditions of Anzac. Sadly, for some Australian veterans, alcoholism was a problem, reflecting the binge drinking phenomena that did exist in some units. For the Americans, it was both soft and hard drugs, with many of the darker elements of heroin being rapidly transmitted to the inner city neighbourhoods of big cities of the USA, the price being paid to this day.
For me, Vietnam was a U-turn in my life. I learnt to grow up quickly, I learnt a great deal about leadership, and I was lucky enough to survive to put some of the lessons learnt into practice. However, it was not until 1987 and the Welcome Home Parade in Australia, and then in New Zealand, that I mentally was able to address Vietnam, handle the issues arising and dissolve the related demons.
Were there positives arising from this war? Clearly Thailand and Malaysia were given breathing space to allow economic modernisation and a form of Asianstyle democracy to emerge, and Australia's armed forces learnt much from the engagement. There were other positives, but many negatives. The massive loss of life must never be forgotten. Forty years on, who cares? We should all care, especially those in Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence involved in military strategic planning, as the lessons arising from the war, particularly the failure of US occupation policies, should never ever be forgotten.
3rd Cavalry Regiment, RAAC, and HQ 1st Australian Task Force, 1970-71
When I graduated from Duntroon in 1955, I went to the 1st Armoured Regiment at Puckapunyal where I learnt to be a tank troop leader. The closequarters interaction with soldiers and practical experience was terrific. Then I wanted to 'better myself ' intellectually, and asked to study at Melbourne University. My dedication to the practical side continued, but by the time I went to Vietnam I had been researching the Malayan Emergency for a higher degree thesis, as well as teaching Cadets military history at Duntroon. The points of comparison between the two campaigns are far apart, but at least I knew what had been tried and failed in Malaya, and by inference what was likely to succeed or fail in Vietnam.
I studied the Emergency as theoretical preparation, and it stood me in good stead. I knew the counter-insurgency jargon, which was enormously helpful because in Vietnam everyone talked in acronyms and the Americans had different acronyms from us. If you knew the theory of it then it wasn't too difficult to follow the practice, but I'd hate to have gone there not having given myself that theoretical, as well as the practical, grounding although some did and they got by.
When we committed the first battalion in 1965, I thought it was probably the right decision. We were honour bound to go there, in my opinion, being part of the ANZUS Treaty. And as a professional soldier, I wouldn't have missed it. If I had not gone to Vietnam I would not have had a future in the Australian Regular Army.
When I went up on a visit in July 1969, there were a few more VC around than when I got there later, and a lot of our carriers were hitting mines. I went out with a couple of troops, did a patrol, saw the Americans and spoke to their command. I got a general feel for what the place was like and the tempo of operations, how the soldiers were reacting, and what they liked and didn't like about it. I think many thought the war would be bigger, but a lot of the firepower went out in '68 once the Americans realised that they had won on the battlefield but lost the psychological war.
When I took over the APC squadron in April 1970, I was losing a carrier a week on mines. Belly-armour kits were on the way, but morale among the troopers was dented. It was soul-destroying to have to write back to a guy's parents if he'd been killed, and hard to clean out the inside of a carrier that had hit a mine, pressure hosing blood and bits of flesh and bone off the inside. Usually I did it, with another officer. I had to set an example, and used to go out on patrol in my single carrier, with my crew of two, and furthermore I would have them warm-up my carrier with its big blue '9' on the side denoting squadron commander, outside where the troops were having breakfast; the comments were frequently, 'If the boss is going out, things can't be all that bad'. Now, when asked to speak as a former commander to a military audience or to groups of young people I encourage them to do two things: lead from the front; and always work within the law. The two were vital in Vietnam, and I believe they are still.
There will be interpretations and reinterpretations of the Vietnam War until the end of time. I believe the war was lost before it was begun. The Americans went in the wrong way, too late and in need of a better plan. They also tended to adopt a traditional style of warfare, and based results on the body count. When I became G2 (Operations) for the Task Force - the principal operations and planning officer - in conferences with senior Americans I felt at an advantage because, as well as being practically well founded in combined arms tactics, I knew what had been tried before. Lacking their firepower, we adopted a slow squeeze approach - patrolled, tracked, ambushed. I think it was the right way to go.
For the Australian Army, the Vietnam War was the watershed in its post-World War II professional life. We went into the conflict half-trained and inadequately prepared; we emerged from it better than we had ever been and with an edge that we have never lost.
Veterans look back now and ask: was it all worth it? I don't think a lot of people in Australia understood the sort of harrowing experiences that people had in Vietnam, and still have. I have nightmares even now, and I think a lot of my soldiers do. There is anguish in what you do even though it's what your country sent you to do. I don't have any reservations in saying that there is a hell of an after-effect. War should always therefore be the very last resort.
3rd Battalion, RAR, 1971
In 1992 I was standing on the upper deck of a cruise ship sailing through Milne Bay, describing the famous battle there in 1942 to a group of elderly gentlemen, when I realised that they had all fought in it. As a look of apprehension appeared on my face, several of them hurried to assure me that they had learnt far more from me than they had ever understood from their own combat experiences fifty years before.
That exchange confirmed to me what was needed from a military historian. But my real understanding of what was needed was shaped by my time in Vietnam. As an infantry platoon commander my main focus was on my job, and there was not much scope for comprehending the larger war. Certainly, in addition to mastering the minutiae of infantry work, I was able to obtain a picture of the battalion's operations. I became familiar with the use of artillery, helicopters and APCs, and I even had a troop of tanks under my command for an attack into a bunker system.
But at the platoon level, we had little capacity for assessing whether the Task Force was achieving its aims or whether the local people were supporting the South Vietnamese government. We could, however, gain a feel for the limits on Australian operations. Possible casualties needed to be balanced against the outcome. If we came across a bunker system we were pulled back to allow an air strike, even though this often meant that when we returned the enemy had fled.
In truth, it is just not possible for soldiers at low or even middle levels of the military hierarchy to make sense of the operations in which they have been involved. Yet we owe it to those who have served to try to put their role in proper historical context. Why were they required to serve there? What was it that the government and senior military commanders were trying to achieve? What difference did the soldiers' efforts make? Or more prosaically, but nonetheless importantly, what actually happened?
As a military historian, it became my passion to answer some of these questions and to portray the soldiers' actions in historical context. And it soon became clear that ultimately I would need to focus on the bigger questions. What was the government's policy and how was it to be translated into actions on the battlefield? Of course, the mechanism for doing this is the command structure. So I ended up studying commanders and their actions - not just in Vietnam, but in other Australian wars and conflicts.
Several of my books have dealt with the Vietnam War. For example, SAS: Phantoms of the Jungle was the story of the Special Air Service, and while I have never served in the SAS, my own experience gave me a feel for the challenges of jungle patrolling. I also had some understanding of the reaction of soldiers, and some appreciation of the human face of war: what it is like to be weary, hungry and under stress, and how mateship holds things together. A platoon in Vietnam might spend up to thirty days on patrol, and there is still a shared bond that can only be understood by those who have served on operations. I would like to think that the SAS men I interviewed knew that I understood this bond.
To see the war in context, however, I needed to raise my sights, so my books on Australian higher command in the Vietnam War and on General Sir John Wilton were focussed at the strategic and operational levels. In writing them, I did not draw heavily on my experiences as a platoon commander, even though I knew the operational environment and I could link the experience of operations, such as the avoidance of casualties, with the political imperatives. Rather, I relied on my reading and study to understand the organisational and political problems of these higher levels of command. I spent much time examining the documents concerning Australia's commitment to the war. During and after my service in Vietnam I had never agonised over my involvement. I did not see it as morally wrong to try to assist the South Vietnamese to resist the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong. My subsequent readings did not cause me to change that view; but there were shades of grey in my conclusions.
Australian politicians and their military advisers made several miscalculations: they misunderstood the nature of the insurgency, and they did not envisage that the USA could be beaten. If these mistakes had not been made, would Australia still have sent troops to Vietnam? The answer is perhaps yes. And this view is supported by Australia's official historian, Peter Edwards, who concluded that in the context of 1965 the government could not have avoided making some commitment. Yet, ultimately, any decision to send troops on a campaign which fails to achieve its purpose must be open to question.
Bill 'Yank' Akell
6th Battalion, RAR, 1966-67, 1969-70
I often think back to that day and night of 18 August 1966 - the desperate situation we found ourselves in, surrounded by a well-trained enemy twenty times our number. It required and received cool and calculated individual and group actions. Every member of 'D' Company, 6RAR, dug deep into his professional training and carried it out to the fullest. No-one shirked their responsibilities, no-one turned away from the enemy. Every man acted magnificently. I will always be very proud to be identified as a Long Tan (and Vietnam) veteran.
I suppose my interest in a military career was fuelled by a stint in the CMF. What followed in seemingly quick succession was joining the Australian Regular Army in May 1964, recruit training in Kapooka, infantry training at Singleton, then a posting to 2RAR. During 1965, 6RAR was formed and I was posted to Signal Platoon. I also became engaged to Carol; we met in my home town, Townsville. On parade one day Lieutenant-Colonel Colin Townsend read out the official warning of a movement to South Vietnam; many of us looked forward to the adventure.
We celebrated the battalion's first birthday in the sands of Vung Tau. Once at Nui Dat, establishing our defences, patrolling and ambushing became priorities. Memories of those days remain with me. Like the times I visited 11 Platoon lines to repair their link to Company HQ. (Diggers were known to cut telephone cables for use in tent lines!) Lieutenant Gordon Sharp, gentleman soldier, always found time for a chat and words of thanks. Tragically, he was killed at Long Tan.
Books have been written which provide well documented accounts of the battle, the courage of each member of 'D' Company, acts of bravery, and the support provided by the artillery, choppers, and our relief force. The size of the enemy force which opposed us will, I suppose, be argued for years to come. Figures between 2500 and 4000 seem to be what we'll have to settle on. We were 108.
I remember the deafening noise from small arms and artillery, the torrential rain making positive identification of friend and foe extremely hard, my movement forward to 10 Platoon with the radio, and when all seemed lost as the enemy assembled for a final assault (which I firmly believe would have been very difficult for us to repulse) the arrival of our APCs. The relief and joy that flooded us! Awareness of the extent of our victory came when we participated in mass burials of the enemy dead. This was done with a fair degree of dignity even though there was hatred and sorrow in our hearts after viewing our own dead.
In August 1969, during our second tour, 6RAR returned to the battlefield. I joined nine other veterans of the battle as we flanked the Long Tan Cross during a moving ceremony. We honoured the 18 men killed on that sacred piece of ground. I stood there again in September 2005 when Carol and I travelled to Vietnam with a tour group that included six Vietnam veterans. There was a day trip to Long Tan and a short service was conducted. After laying a wreath I wandered off intending to have some private time, but after about ten metres I 'hit a wall', my legs would not allow me to proceed, and I became upset. Carol was watching and came to comfort me. We moved back to the 'safety' of the group where I settled down. It was a totally unexpected reaction and one I will never forget. I have heard that other Long Tan veterans revisiting the battlefield have had similar experiences.
We members of 'D' Company forged lifelong friendships in that battle, and many of us stay in touch. We were, and remain, disappointed that those who fought so courageously were denied the recognition that we, the veterans of Long Tan, feel were won. We ended up with ten British Commonwealth awards and a US Presidential Unit Citation.
I went on to enjoy a successful 36-year army career: from Private hulking around a radio set to Major, second-in-command of a Reserve battalion. I remain grateful for the opportunities, friendships and memories that came from association with Diggers of all ranks and ages. I will always promote service life as the premier career. Through membership of worthy organisations such as Legacy, the RSL and VVAA I maintain an association with veterans of Vietnam and other wars. Each is a unique individual with his own story to tell, albeit with some reluctance. None brag about their experiences. They are the original quiet achievers.
The shining light in my service was the support of my family. Service life is not at all easy for families. I know that I can never fully repay my wife Carol, daughter Lisa and son David for being there when it counted. Whenever they talk about a veterans' support group, I know they must be referring to the family.
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